Nobody expected another high-scoring match.
But the Islanders and Capitals completely tightened things up on Tuesday night before a sell-out crowd of 1,400 at Nassau Coliseum after combining for 12 goals just five days earlier.
Brock Nelson scored in one of the best Islanders’ third periods of the season for an entertainingly intense, 1-0 win. It allowed the Islanders (25-10-4), who won their third straight, to match the Capitals atop the East Division with 54 points.
"I didn’t think they had a lot of opportunities but some that they did were pretty dangerous," coach Barry Trotz said. "We had lots of chances to pull away and we didn’t and it was a heck of a hockey game between two good teams."
Semyon Varlamov made 29 saves, including 10 in the third period, for his fourth shutout this season and the 31st of his career. An equally-brilliant Vitek Vanecek stopped 38 shots for the Capitals.
"I thought Varly was really good," defenseman Ryan Pulock said. "He was in position. He made those saves look easy. When he’s calm back there it makes our job easier. He’s been a rock for us all year. Their goalie made some highlight-reel saves for them and you’re going to run into that in this league."
The Islanders had set a season-high for goals in an 8-4 win over the Capitals on Thursday to open this season-high, six-game homestand. In all, the teams play five times in 27 days this month in a possible playoff preview.
"Every game is different," said Nelson, who broke the stalemate at 13:05 of the third period on the rebound of Pulock’s shot from the right point. The Islanders took 20 shots over the final 20 minutes.
"I think you have a game plan, or maybe a script in your head on how things will go and it probably doesn’t turn out that way more often," Nelson added. "Every game is going to be tough the rest of the way in. Our division is tight. All the points matter so you need to find ways to win."
The top four teams in the East will qualify for the postseason. Finishing first will guarantee home-ice advantage for the first two rounds and the Islanders are now 16-1-2 at home.
"For us, when we start the year, the ultimate goal is to win it all," said Cal Clutterbuck, who dished out a game-high seven hits. "If you struggle to keep up with the teams in your own division then it’s going to be a tough road. Really, honestly, it’s about us just daily taking on the challenge that’s in front of us. It’s a tough division, I think everybody knows that, and if you start looking ahead or dwelling on things past, you find yourself in a hole."
It was clear from the opening faceoff this game would be much tighter than Thursday’s offensive showcase.
Rookie Kieffer Bellows skated back two minutes in to knock the puck away from Alex Ovechkin just over the Islanders’ blue line. The Capitals then went from 3:59 to 14:06 of the first period without a shot.
Jordan Eberle hit the crossbar on first-period power play, then hit the crossbar again with a point-blank backhander in the second period.
Vanecek turned aside Anthony Beauvillier from the right circle at 5:49 of the second period after he was sprung up ice by defenseman Nick Leddy. Vanececk also closed his pads in time to deny Pulock from in tight at 12:41.
Varlamov started the third period by making a shoulder save on Carl Hagelin’s three-on-two attempt just 36 seconds in.