This was unfamiliar territory for the Islanders: a tie game late in the third period against a formidable opponent that went their way in regulation.
And this 3-2 win over the St. Louis Blues — on Anders Lee’s ripper with 7:18 to go — brought more unfamiliar territory: The Islanders are over .500 for the first time this season at 11-10-5 and out of the Eastern Conference basement for the first time in nearly a month.
“We’re still not where we need to be,” Cal Clutterbuck said after the Islanders moved to 5-0-1 in their last six games. “It’s nice to win a bunch of games, but we’re still not there yet.”
After losing five games in regulation in their first 20 that were similar to the one they faced Thursday night at Barclays Center, the Islanders were wallowing a bit. The offense felt stale, the key save was missing and they were staring at a bleak year after barely a quarter of the season gone.
The rejuvenation began Nov. 28 with a 2-1 overtime win over the Flames. The only blemish since was an overtime loss to Detroit on Sunday. Regulation wins, the sort the Islanders need to start climbing the Eastern Conference ladder, came against the playoff-bound Penguins, Capitals, Rangers and Blues, the team with the fewest regulation losses in the Western Conference.
And Lee, who had only one goal in his first 18 games, was in the middle of things again.
He neatly tipped home Nick Leddy’s point shot on the power play to tie the score at 6:51 of the first period, offsetting Robby Fabbri’s goal at 4:36.
Lee was there again, out for a St. Louis-zone draw at 12:40 of the third period with linemates Casey Cizikas and Clutterbuck, a new sort of “best fourth line in hockey.”
Clutterbuck scored off a set faceoff play with Cizikas to beat the Rangers on March 6 last season. This one was similar. Cizikas won the draw, Lee cranked and fired with Clutterbuck in Jake Allen’s sight line, and the Islanders had the lead.
Thomas Greiss made a couple of big saves after that, denying Vladimir Tarasenko off the rush and then Fabbri from in close to preserve the win.
“I liked our third, obviously,” John Tavares said. “We did some good things, we got rewarded. We just want all four lines to be able to go out there and create, to build some momentum.”
Tavares had the highlight-reel goal of the night, likely anywhere in the league, to give the Islanders a 2-1 lead in the first period. He got the puck and his stick around Jay Bouwmeester by passing his stick behind his own back, pulled up in the slot as four Blues inexplicably watched and snapped a wrister past Allen.
“There’s only a handful of guys who can do that,” Brock Nelson said. “I had a front-row view.”
Kyle Brodziak tied it in the second period and, for the 10th time in 26 games, the Islanders headed to the third tied. They had only three wins in the previous nine in that situation, and the litany of late regulation losses (to the Canadiens, Penguins, Kings and Sharks twice) might have crept into their heads at one point. No longer.
“It’s a different feeling,” Nelson said. “There’s a different energy in here the last couple of weeks or so. It’s definitely contagious.”