Michael Grabner scored twice and the Islanders took advantage of early power plays to build a three-goal lead after the first period, before cruising to a 5-2 win over the Florida Panthers on Tuesday at Nassau Coliseum.
With the win, the Islanders maintain sole possession of seventh place in the Eastern Conference at 22-16-5 (49 points), three points ahead of ninth-place Winnipeg, who also has five games left in the season.
New York put together its first three-goal first period of the season, lighting the lamp twice on the man advantage to take control of the game early. After leading for most of the game, Evgeni Nabokov made 12 third period saves, 26 overall, to earn his 21st win of the season, tying for the league lead.
Even with the three-goal victory, Head Coach Jack Capuano said there were still a number of things the Islanders could improve on.
“It wasn't one of our best games by any means,” Capuano said. “I thought Nabby played a great game tonight. We tried to establish our forecheck and sticks, and be resilient on pucks tonight. I thought we did that, but there were times where we didn't. We found a way and that's the important thing.”
Matt Moulson put the Islanders on the board eight minutes into the game with his 14th goal of the season. Thomas Hickey threw the puck in front from the left wing boards. It changed direction off Matt Martin’s stick and then caught a piece of Moulson on the way past Florida goalie Jacob Markstrom.
The Coliseum crowd fed off of the quick start and remained a factor throughout the game.
“It's a lot of fun to play in these meaningful games at the end of the year,” Moulson said. “Each one has been intense no matter who we're playing. It's been that way for the last three weeks.”
Midway through the first period, a series of Florida penalties put the Islanders in the driver’s seat. Tyson Strachan was called for cross-checking Colin McDonald at 12:11 after a bad turnover in the Florida zone, and 44 seconds later, Erik Gudbranson took a double-minor for hi-sticking Moulson.
During the ensuing 5-on-3, Mark Streit blasted a one-timer from the right side through traffic to the back of the net.
With eight seconds remaining on Gudbranson’s second minor, Michael Grabner made the score 3-0. Andrew MacDonald made the home run pass all the way to the Florida blue line for Grabner, who split the Panthers defense as the pass arrived, deked to his backhand and scored at 16:47.
Florida got one back a minute-and-a-half later on a power play of their own. Dmitry Kulikov took a pass from Tomas Fleischmann and ripped it off the bar and in to make it a 3-1 game after 20 minutes.
The Islanders opened the second period with a two-goal cushion and doubled it to four quickly. Radek Martinek scored for the third time this season during a transition play. Jesse Joensuu earned his first point of the season after he passed to the middle of the ice for a trailing Martinek, whose one-timer went through a screen by Martin and in off the post.
Fourteen seconds later, Grabner intercepted an east-west pass in the Panthers zone and quickly converted the Islanders fifth goal of the evening. The goal, scored at 3:33, sent the Nassau Coliseum crowd into its first “We want playoffs” chant of the night and forced Markstrom out of the game in favor of Scott Clemmensen.
“We came out strong, especially in the first 10 minutes,” Grabner said. “It was not our best effort, but we scored some timely goals, which kind of threw their game off. We got the two points, that’s what matters, but we definitely have to be at our best going forward.”
Markstrom finished with 13 saves on 18 shots faced. Clemmensen turned aside all 13 shots he saw in relief.
Four minutes later, the Panthers cut the lead to 5-2 on Marcel Goc’s sixth tally of the season. Evgeni Nabokov came out of the crease to cut off the angle on a Tomas Kopecky chance from the right side, forcing the shot wide. As it bounced off the end boards, Kopecky fed it to the front, where Goc was standing to push the puck across at 7:44.
The Islanders killed three minor penalties over the final 20 minutes, finishing the game 4-for-5 on the penalty kill. Florida was unable to cut further into the Islanders lead.
The Islanders will wrap up the season with a five-game road trip starting Thursday at Toronto. Islanders captain Mark Streit commented on the importance of heading into the upcoming trip on a high note.
“It was big to get the two points,” Streit said. “Every point is crucial this time of the year. It’s also nice to finish with a win at home. Early on, we were struggling at home, but we’ve found a way to win games and play better at home. We have great fans, and it was a big crowd tonight with a great atmosphere.”
Notes: Jack Capuano earned his 82nd game behind the Islanders bench, moving into sole possession of second-place on the franchise wins list (Al Arbour-740) … The Islanders swept the season series against Florida (3-0-0) for the first time in the Panthers’ 19-season history … The Islanders improved to 9-1-2 in their last 12, and finish the season with a 10-11-3 mark on home ice … The Islanders are guaranteed at least a .500 record for the first time since 2006-07 … Andrew MacDonald recorded his 50th career assist … The Islanders out-shot the Panthers 31-28, led by Grabner’s five shots on goal … The Islanders finished 2-for-3 on the man advantage, while Florida was 4-5-0 … Casey Cizikas left the game in the second period with an upper-body injury … Mark Streit had a team-high 24:40 of ice time … John Tavares won 13-of-21 faceoffs (62%) … The Islanders blocked 21 shots; Streit, Radek Martinek and Lubomir Visnovsky each blocked three.
New York Islanders
60 Kevin Poulin
14 Tomas Fleischmann - 57 Marcel Goc - 82 Tomas Kopecky
19 Scottie Upshall - 27 Nick Bjugstad - 12 Jack Skille
18 Shawn Matthias - 11 Jonathan Huberdeau - 37 Greg Rallo
42 Quinton Howden - 15 Drew Shore - 22 George Parros
7 Dmitry Kulikov - 44 Erik Gudbranson
51 Brian Campbell - 43 Mike Weaver
3 TJ Brennan - 23 Tyson Strachan
35 Jacob Markstrom
30 Scott Clemmensen