TORONTO - Third periods were the stuff of nightmares through the bulk of the first half of the Islanders' season. In coughing up 10 third-period leads through 37 games and winning just two of them, plus being blown out in 14 others, the Islanders were the opposite of strong finishers.
But they have shown better late-game confidence of late, and Tuesday night was another example. Frans Nielsen and Calvin de Haan scored goals 2:20 apart in the early part of the third period, cracking open a 2-2 game and sending the Islanders to a 5-3 win over the Leafs, their fifth straight on the road and fifth in their last six games overall.
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"This was the kind of game we have to win, one that we weren't winning earlier this season,'' said Kyle Okposo, who returned from a one-game absence because of the birth of his daughter to score his 17th of the season late in the first. "We really had no doubt in our minds at all that we were winning this game.''
It was even at 2 after a shaky second period in which the Islanders gave the Leafs four power plays, of which Toronto converted one, Mason Raymond's rebound goal to tie it heading to the third.
But Nielsen converted the Islanders' lone power play of the game, snapping in the puck after Thomas Vanek's shot was blocked. And de Haan, who recorded the first two points of his NHL career Monday, scored his first goal on a 60-footer that ticked off Dion Phaneuf's stick and beat Jonathan Bernier at 6:01.
The Leafs pulled within a goal on Joffrey Lupul's redirection with 3:05 left, and perhaps there were Islanders flashing back to the horrific blown games to the Lightning (up 2-0 with three minutes left, lost in a shootout) on Dec. 17 or the Caps (ahead 2-1 with a power play inside of a minute, lost, 3-2, in overtime) on Nov. 30.
Instead, the Islanders played a structured, smart final three minutes, capped by not giving the Leafs a decent look with Bernier pulled. Cal Clutterbuck fired home an empty-netter with 8.3 seconds to go to seal it.
The Lupul goal was just the fourth third-period score the Islanders have allowed in the last eight games, while the Isles have scored 14 of their own in the same span.
"You start to win a few of these and obviously the confidence comes back,'' said John Tavares, who had three assists to give him eight points in the last two games. "With our group, it's a lot of the same guys who were here last year and we were a team that did a good job late in games. That's what got us to the playoffs, finding ways to win.''