Isles clinch playoff spot despite shootout loss
RALEIGH, N.C. - This one won't go in the Islanders' time capsule. But this Islanders team has done everything asked of it the past month, so they did just enough to earn the point they needed to clinch their first playoff berth since 2007.
The 4-3 shootout loss Tuesday night to the Hurricanes was an inconsequential result. What mattered was John Tavares' goal, banked off 'Canes defenseman Justin Faulk with 1:01 left in the third that sent the game beyond regulation and got the Isles that single point.
The Jets were losing 5-3 to the Caps around the same time that Carolina sewed up the shootout point, clinching a playoff berth for the Isles after one of their lesser performances of an 11-1-3 streak.
"Fransie [Nielsen] said it best: It's never felt so good to lose a game," Josh Bailey said. "We'll take it."
The Isles pumped 39 shots on goaltender Dan Ellis and hit a couple of crossbars, but they did not play much like the team that has reeled off 19 of a possible 22 points in April (8-0-3) to get to this clinching moment.
They rallied to tie Tuesday night's game three times, the last coming after a failed Carolina two- on-one and about seven minutes after Tuomo Ruutu hit the crossbar with an open net as Evgeni Nabokov went wandering and lost possession of the puck behind his own net.
"It definitely wasn't our best and we got a little lucky," said Matt Moulson, who had two assists, including the cross-ice feed to Tavares for the tying goal. "We always seem to have that confidence that we can come back."
And fitting that it was Tavares who was trying to thread a perfect pass onto Kyle Okposo's stick but ended up banking it off Faulk instead. Tavares has been mentioned as a Hart Trophy candidate this shortened season, and that is the sort of play Hart voters notice.
"It's definitely the biggest accomplishment since I've been in the league," Tavares said. "This is what you dream of as a kid, a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup, and we've got an opportunity to do that."
With their final games Thursday in Philadelphia and Friday in Buffalo, there will be decisions to make. Whether to rest Nabokov, who made his 40th start, is the biggest one. The Isles still want to clinch as high a seed as possible -- they ended Tuesday night in sixth, two points ahead of the Rangers and Senators -- but want their 37-year-old goaltender fresh for what's to come next week.
And there is the smaller matter of allowing at least three goals for a third straight game after holding opponents to two or fewer in 10 straight. Tuesday night, there were breakdowns in the first two periods and the Isles were off their usual structure in the defensive zone.
But for a night, even one in which the game wasn't their best effort, Islanders players were smiling and excited, heading for a postseason more than half of them never have experienced.
"They deserve it," coach Jack Capuano said. "They showed a lot of will and sacrifice and determination. Most importantly, our fans back home [deserve it]. They stuck with us, they haven't seen playoff hockey in a while and they're passionate. So it's great."