BUFFALO — This wasn’t exactly the final-week scenario the Islanders envisioned after working hard to get into the playoff hunt: Only four games are left, the teams they’re chasing keep winning, and now they have to win their remaining games without an injured John Tavares.
It seems like an overwhelming task.
They likely will not make the postseason, but they dug deep enough Sunday afternoon to stay alive for another few days. They beat the Sabres, 4-2, led by two third-period goals by Anders Lee, who moved beyond the 30-goal plateau for the first time in his career.
“There’s a ton of guys with a ton of pride in this room,” said Lee, whose wrister past Robin Lehner with 10:41 to go snapped a 2-2 tie. “No one’s giving up.”
The Bruins already had won by the time the Islanders took the ice Sunday, so even with the win, the Isles are five points behind the Maple Leafs and Senators (both of whom have a game in hand on the Islanders) and six points behind the Bruins (on whom the Isles have a game in hand). The Lightning moved two points ahead of the Islanders by beating the Stars on Sunday night.
Jaroslav Halak made 35 saves for his third win in as many starts since his recall and the Islanders’ group of relative no-names did enough work to earn their second straight win, keeping the Sabres’ top-ranked power play off the board in four opportunities.
“I thought it was real big,” Doug Weight said of his team’s penalty kill, which was missing four regulars in its rotation (Tavares, Nikolay Kulemin, Casey Cizikas and Travis Hamonic). “We got a lot of guys involved and Jaro made the saves when he had to.”
Cal Clutterbuck opened the scoring with a sharp-angle wrister over Lehner’s shoulder at 9:31 of the first period. The Sabres were the more forceful team for the second and third, with a 31-14 advantage in shots on goal in the last 40 minutes, but the Islanders had answers each time the Sabres tied the score.
Evander Kane roofed one past Halak on an odd-man rush at 10:08 of the second, but Josh Ho-Sang burst free for a breakaway and faked Lehner out of his chest protector for Ho-Sang’s fourth at 11:04.
In the third, Zemgus Girgensons tied it for the Sabres at 5:17, but the Isles answered at 9:19. Ho-Sang was circling the Sabres’ net when a puck fluttered in Lehner’s direction. The goaltender batted it away and right to Lee, who stopped it and snapped a shot that Lehner should have stopped.
Lee’s 31st sealed the game at 14:33. Sabres defenseman Jake McCabe fumbled the puck away with Anthony Beauvillier circling on the forecheck and the puck slid right to Lee, who whipped a backhand past Lehner.
“We got a few bounces in the third,” said Lee, who is the 21st NHL player to score 30 goals this season. “When you lose a player like Johnny, you have to keep it simple and play a north-south game. We did our best to grind it out.”
Without Tavares on this four-game road trip, some of the veterans spoke up before the game.
“They did a lot of things to get us prepared without Johnny here,” Ho-Sang said. “And on the ice, when Buffalo scored, we didn’t hang our heads. We just bounced back. That’s a big sign of a team that wants to win.”