Something was clearly amiss for the Islanders through their first four games, three of them defeats, though the losses did not define what was going wrong.
They did not have the same defensive crispness, the same consistent goaltending, the same ability to roll four lines, the same all-out willingness to compete for pucks that fueled their run to the second round of last season’s playoffs.
“Yeah, we were not ourselves for the first four,” right wing Cal Clutterbuck said. “We had spurts. But last year, we were just stringing together complete games. We didn’t start the way we wanted. I think this one, if we can come back with the same kind of effort, even build on it, then we’ll get ourselves on the right track.”
All elements worked much better in Saturday night’s 3-2 shootout win over the Panthers at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum as the team celebrated its alumni weekend with Hall of Famers Bryan Trottier, Clark Gillies and Denis Potvin among the returning players.
Of concern, though: top-line right wing Jordan Eberle exited the game at 17:26 of the third period after a hard check from defenseman Mike Matheson appeared to buckle his right leg. Coach Barry Trotz had no update after the game.
Semyon Varlamov made 35 saves for the Islanders, plus all three shots in the shootout. Backup Sam Montembeault stopped 26 shots for the Panthers (1-2-2). Brock Nelson scored the lone shootout goal in the first round.
“I felt like I was myself today and, of course, the team played different hockey,” said Varlamov, who notched his first win as an Islander in his third start after signing a four-year, $20 million deal. “Everybody played well defensively like we were supposed to play. It’s always easier to play for the goalie when there are no shots from the slot and you see most of the shots.”
One game, of course, is not a trend, so Monday’s matinee against the defending Stanley Cup champion Blues at the Coliseum will be a good test. But the trend is upward, even starting with Friday’s 5-2 loss at Carolina.
“You’re not just going to go from a brutal game against Edmonton [Tuesday’s 5-2 loss at the Coliseum] and have an unbelievable one the next night,” said captain Anders Lee, who tied the game at 1-1 at 5:40 of the second period with a one-timer from the left circle off Mathew Barzal’s patient stickwork behind the crease. “If you can build off of any loss, we built off of last night.”
Trotz, looking to spark his team’s five-on-five attack, revamped all but his top line of Barzal centering Lee and Eberle and was able to trust all four lines.
Evgenii Dadonov, off a feed from Jonathan Huberdeau on the rush, tied the game at 2-2 at 13:58 of the third period, beating Varlamov over his glove from the right circle.
As was the case in their 4-1 win over the visiting Jets last Sunday, the Islanders started playing much better in the second period against the Panthers as they scored twice.
Josh Bailey made it 2-1 at 17:31 off a three-on-two rush that started with defenseman Adam Pelech stepping up to intercept a pass in the neutral zone.
The Islanders allowed the first goal for the second straight night and for the third time in five games when Denis Malgin connected on a one-timer from the right circle at 5:34 of the first period. It was the Panthers’ second shot.
"It was important for us,” Trotz said. “We played really hard [Friday] night and didn’t get the result. It’s just sticking with the process.”