There is no way to guess how many more victories the Islanders will need to reach the playoffs. The number 20 was suggested in the team’s locker room Saturday morning. Much clearer was the fact that they really, really needed one in this game. Coming off two unsightly, dispiriting losses after the All-Star break, they found their stride for at least a night.
As usual, they also found ways to give their goalie plenty of exercise and their fans a lot of heartburn. Yet they rebounded from a poor first period and a one-goal deficit after the second to earn a 4-3 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets, a fellow desperate team in the Metropolitan Division.
“A huge win, a huge two points,” said Jaroslav Halak, who faced a blitz of 26 shots in the first period and turned away 25 of them en route to making 46 saves. “I think it’s better for a goalie when they shoot a lot of pucks, but obviously that was too many. We did a lot of good things in the second and third period. We just found a way to get the two points. That’s really a huge booster for our team after those two losses.”
The odd thing was that at a video session Friday, Doug Weight had hammered home the point that the team had to try harder, and especially try harder to avoid giving up so many shots. That didn’t take hold in the first period. Fortunately for the Islanders, Halak was up to the task.
“I think he was the only one who got the memo that the game started at 7 o’clock,” Weight said after the game.
The Islanders moved within a point of the Blue Jackets for the first wild-card spot and tied the Flyers for the second wild card (both have a game in hand on the Isles). Jordan Eberle tied it at 2:49 of the third period and Brock Nelson — off a feed from Andrew Ladd, who had gathered a rebound — put in the game-winner at 5:14.
“Jaro was there to stand tall. We found a way between periods, but we’ve got to find a way to play three full periods and make it easy on ourselves,” Eberle said. “Coming off the break, it kind of feels like a new season. So we needed to get going again. It was a big game, a turnaround game for us. We’ve got to understand the way that we played.”
Said Nelson, “The main message was just to play fast and simple, not throw pucks away.”
The real main message was just to win. Earlier in the day, Eberle said, “And there’s 30 games left and we probably need at least 20 wins.”
That might or might not turn out to be the case, but the fact that such math had entered the Islanders’ dressing room is evidence of the urgency the team feels. It is a sense that Weight tried to hammer home in his talk before practice Friday. Fact is, it is a widespread feeling in the tense, taut Metropolitan Division.
Entering their meeting Saturday night, the Islanders and Blue Jackets were equals on the desperation scale. Each had gone 2-4-1 in its previous seven games. Each recently shuffled lines to get something going. Each has heard about its “compete” level from its coach.
“I think the definition of ‘competing’ has changed quite a bit over the years, as far as how the game is played,” Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella said before the game.
The Islanders had enough competitiveness when they needed it. Nick Leddy scored his first goal since the day after Thanksgiving. John Tavares had his first point (an assist) in five games. And Halak had himself a heck of a busy night.
“I’m not going to lie to you,” he said, “I feel tired. I need some sleep.” But most of all, his team needed a win.