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Islanders top Senators to sweep home-and-home

by Arpon Basu

OTTAWA -- The New York Islanders may not have needed overtime or a shootout this time, but their vast experience in those situations helped them tack on yet another victory.

Jaroslav Halak set a franchise record with his 11th straight win, making 20 saves to complete a home-and-home sweep of the Ottawa Senators with a 2-1 victory Thursday at Canadian Tire Centre.

The Islanders (19-7-0) improved to 13-2-0 in their past 15 games. It was, however, the Islanders' sixth win in regulation time over that span; four victories came in shootouts and three others in overtime. This victory, combined with the Pittsburgh Penguins' 3-0 home loss to the Vancouver Canucks, moved the Islanders into undisputed possession of first place in the Metropolitan Division.

New York's 19 victories are the most in the NHL.

Casey Cizikas scored the game-winning goal at 13:33 of the third period off a play he helped create by forcing a turnover in the Senators' zone. He then went to the net and took a Thomas Hickey pass that cut through the teeth of the Ottawa defense to score his fourth goal and give New York a 2-1 lead.

It wasn't an overtime goal, but it felt like one and was typical of a team that has become remarkably efficient winning tight games.

"It's a measure of a team that's learning and a team that's growing," Hickey said. "I think last year, I don't think we could have been worse in those situations. All the same guys are here and we've just learned from it.

"It's a good situation to be in when you're tied, it means you're probably going to get a point with a really good chance of getting two with the way we play in overtime. I think we play better and we get more chances when we're in those close, tight games."

The Islanders improved to 12-1-0 in one-goal games, the best record in the NHL. Though some may argue a lot of those wins are a bounce or two away from being losses and could wind up being losses in the future, it remains a far cry from the Islanders who went 19-13-11 to finish 25th in the League in such games last season.

"The mentality right from the start's been defense first," Islanders coach Jack Capuano said. "If it causes for extra time, then it does, but we don't want to change the style that we play."

Halak has only been with New York a few months but has already stolen a record from the most revered goaltender in Islanders history, Billy Smith, by winning his 11th straight.

"It's always nice, but I would say I'm not here to chase any records or anything," Halak said. "I'm here to have fun, play hockey and try to help the guys win the game. I'm glad that happened lately."

The Senators honored the greatest offensive star in franchise history prior to the game, and then proceeded to produce very little offense.

Daniel Alfredsson kicked things off with an emotional goodbye to his Ottawa fans, but the Senators were unable to provide their former captain with a fairy-tale ending.

"It was a great day and it was fun to be a part of," current captain Erik Karlsson said. "I think it was well done. We didn't win the game and that's not fun, [but] that's a separate situation."

Though the Senators were not able to muster much offense, the one goal they did score was oddly appropriate on a night they celebrated the career of Alfredsson, a Swede.

On a 5-on-3 power play late in the second period, the two Swedish skaters on the team, Karlsson and forward Mika Zibanejad, exchanged the puck a few times at the points before Zibanejad blasted a one-timer through Halak's legs to tie the game 1-1 at 15:07.

Karlsson came within an inch and perhaps a few tenths of a second of tying the game, taking a pass in the slot and ringing a shot off the goal post at the final buzzer.

Karlsson then turned and threw his stick toward center ice in frustration.

While Alfredsson said goodbye to the Ottawa fans, Marc Methot reacquainted himself with them. The defenseman made his season debut after missing the first 24 games with an injury to his back area.

"I thought he looked like the Tin Man without an oil can a couple of times out there, but it was good to see him out there," Senators coach Paul MacLean said. "I thought he had some presence with the puck and made some outlet passes that we haven't had. I thought he gave a good account of himself."

Senators forward Bobby Ryan also returned after missing two games with a broken finger, with MacLean saying prior to the game that if he was going to play, Ryan "has to be able to shoot the puck to the back of the net."

Ryan had a glorious opportunity to do just that during a first-period power play when defenseman Cody Ceci set him up with an open net from the left circle, but Ryan missed, staring up to the sky afterwards.

Ryan has two goals in his past 13 games, and the Senators are 3-7-3 in their past 13, including their current 0-3-1 stretch.

"After one loss you've got some concern," Ottawa forward Chris Neil said. "You want to win as many games as possible, and right now we're just finding ways to lose games."

The Islanders also had a player making a season debut; forward Michel Grabner returned to the lineup after missing 25 games with a lower-body injury.

Grabner took Josh Bailey's spot in the lineup on a line with Mikhail Grabovski and Frans Nielsen, but only showed up on the scoresheet by taking a first-period goalie interference penalty that led to Ryan's golden scoring chance.

The Islanders arrived in Ottawa extremely shorthanded on defense, missing three of their top six with Johnny Boychuk, Travis Hamonic and Lubomir Visnovsky not making the trip due to various injuries.

That allowed Griffin Reinhart to play his fourth NHL game, his first since Oct. 14, after he was called up from Bridgeport of the American Hockey League on Wednesday.

"They play within a team concept, they understand how we need to play," Capuano said of his players. "We had three of our top four D out, five guys out of the lineup, and guys came in and did a real good job for us tonight."

Paired mainly with fellow first-round draft pick Calvin de Haan, Reinhart played 14:09 with no action on special teams.

"I thought Griffin did all right, he played well," Capuano said. "It's a tough game. You come in here, first NHL game in a while, great atmosphere. We play the same system in [AHL] Bridgeport, so that helps. But I think overall he handled himself quite well. I thought he did a good job with the puck and his poise."

The Islanders opened the scoring on the power play at 11:45 of the second period on Brock Nelson's team-best 12th goal. Nielsen stickhandled the puck behind the net before sending a pass out in front that bounced right to Nelson, who caught Ottawa goalie Craig Anderson out of position for his fifth goal in his past 10 games.

The Senators applied their best pressure of the game in the third period with 12 shots on goal, three more than they produced in the first two periods combined.

But Halak stopped them all, playing spoiler on Alfredsson's big night and allowing the Islanders to continue on their tremendous roll.

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