Andy Graziano, SNY.TV Twitter
This summer, Islanders GM Garth Snow signed Andrew Ladd to a big-money deal and signed Jason Chimera to replace the departed Matt Martin, hoping to add some additional veteran leadership to a team coming off its first playoff round victory in over 20 years.
Even though the offensive numbers have been slow to arrive (Chimera with 4-5-9 in 25 games, but three goals the past five games and Ladd 3-3-6 in 25 games, but 1-2-3 in his last five games), they have combined with existing veterans to help the Islanders out of the type of malaise that struck the team during October (4-5-0) and November (4-5-4).
After earning one win in regulation in 12 games, New York has won three of its last four. The Isles added an overtime win over the Flames and picked up a point in their only losing effort, a 4-3 overtime decision to the Red Wings on Sunday. That's nine of the last 10 points captured by the Islanders, who have gained six points on the Metropolitan Division-leading Rangers over the past nine days and hold two games in hand.
Their latest was a spirited 4-2 win over those crosstown rivals Wednesday night in Brooklyn, who they have been chasing since the opening night of the season. The Islanders captured their eighth win in their last 11 games against the Rangers by grinding out a 60-minute affair with outstanding penalty killing, timely goals and another strong performance in goal by Jaroslav Halak.
Chimera led the way with a first-period marker off the rush, something the Islanders have not seen much of this season, instead choosing to play a grinding, dump-and-chase style of play that mostly doesn't suit their current crop of forwards. Picking up a loose puck just outside the Islanders' blue line after a penalty kill, he spotted Brock Nelson coming out of the box and played a perfect pass before doing what he does best -- driving the net. Nelson's return shot/pass ended up deflecting off Chimera's leg for a big goal that gave his team a huge 2-0 lead after 20 minutes.
When Jimmy Vesey cut the Islanders lead in half just 56 seconds into the second period, the pro-Rangers Barclays crowd started to up their intensity and noise level. But a little over a minute later, another Islanders veteran, Ladd, quickly dumped sand on those flames.
After a nifty between-the-legs pass to Shane Prince off a Kevin Klein turnover, Ladd smartly followed up the play and was 'Johnny on the spot' as Henrik Lundqvist poke-checked the puck off Prince and Rangers defenseman Brady Skjei, giving Ladd an empty net to deposit his third goal of the season to regain the home team's two-goal cushion.
"It's a big win, penalty kill did a heck of a job, power play stepped up and got a big goal when we needed it. Contributions from everyone," John Tavares said. The Islanders captain scored a huge goal with nine minutes remaining as he clanged a snap shot off the post behind Lundqvist after the Islanders had an absolutely horrific power play attempt on their previous try. Clearly playing ill, the captain gutted this one out and led all forwards in ice time once again with 18:45, four shot attempts, and an 11-7 mark on faceoffs.
Travis Hamonic, who paced the defensemen with 23:21, including a Herculean 4:28 on the penalty kill, finished with six blocked shots and a lot to say (privately) about the officiating after the Islanders were forced to play the final minute and a half down six on three due to some egregiously bad calls.
"We believe in our group, and what we can do," Hamonic said after the game. "We gotta keep this going, keep moving forward. Every day is a new day. We are continuing to go in the third period lately, keeping up the pressure. We have to learn to play in those situations and the past couple of weeks, that's been a big difference postgame."
In speaking to the recent surges by Lee, Chimera and Ladd, Hamonic said "It's unreal to see these guys get rewarded like that. They battle so hard in practice and games. You see someone work their ass off, it's nice to see them finally get rewarded."
Nobody in the Islanders locker room seems to be resting on these most recent results, however. Even with the 4-0-1 record, issues that were prevalent in October and November are still showing their ugly faces. The turnovers and lack of possession are two of the most obvious things the Islanders must improve on to continue surging forward.
"You have no other choice but to push forward (through rough stretches)," Hamonic said. "Nobody is feeling sorry for us. I don't know who else is really struggling right now in the league, but I tell you, I don't feel sorry for them, so…With the younger players on this team, they have to learn that some days, you just have to work a bit harder when things aren't going your way in practice. Keep grinding. It's been a good stretch, but it's a new day, every single day. Past results don't matter, we have to keep moving forward now."
To drive home the narrative of the evening and best explain the mindset of the Islanders' locker room, one only has to go back to the captain and spokesman of the players, Tavares. When asked what it means to finally climb back to .500 at 10-10-5, he summed it up perfectly, as he is known to do.
"It means we still have a lot of work to do," he said. "Obviously, we've certainly had some ups and downs, plenty of frustrations and while we're certainly playing better hockey, we know we still can be even better. That's really the mindset."
Beyond the box: The Islanders spent 9:26 on the penalty kill, leading to a 77-44 shot attempt advantage for the Rangers. ....Casey Cizikas was 6-12 on faceoffs in 16:25. ....Johnny Boychuk was sidelined with flu-like symptoms and Anthony Beauvillier sat out his third straight game in favor of Alan Quine, who played only 8:37. ...Halak is now 10-1-0 all-time against Lundqvist….The Rangers' Matt Puempel left the game in the first period with a concussion after a collision with Brock Nelson, and Rick Nash departed in the second with a groin strain.
Josh Bailey spoke of that viral picture from Sunday of his wife Megan holding their infant son by the glass as the team was taking warm-ups. "Yeah, I have seen it too," he said. "It was special for both of us, especially for me, him coming to his first game and all. Something I'll never forget."