The Islanders’ latest win had less to do with facing a team coming off a long COVID-19 layoff, even with the Sabres fading late, than having the better goalie in Semyon Varlamov.
Varlamov made 20 saves and didn’t face a shot in the third period behind his lockdown defense as the Islanders opened a four-game road trip with a 3-1 win over the Sabres on Monday night at KeyBank Center.
The teams also will play in Buffalo on Tuesday night. Six of the Islanders’ next 12 games, including Monday, are against the Sabres.
"I don’t think we were taking them lightly," said Brock Nelson, whose power-play goal at the left post off Josh Bailey’s feed made it 3-1 at 9:49 of the second period. "They had some time off, but after a break like that, everybody’s fired up to play.
"Varly bailed us out a little bit and then we were able to play better in the second and third. Early on, a couple of backdoors. You want to try and limit those looks, but it’s nice knowing you have a guy back there that’s going to save them."
The Islanders (7-4-3) extended their point streak to seven games (4-0-3). Varlamov has started the last five, allowing nine goals in that span and allowing one or fewer for a second time.
"When you start getting results, it gives the group confidence," said Bailey, who also set up Anders Lee’s deflection at the left post for a 1-0 lead at 16:37 of the first period. "We’ve been going pretty good. At the same time, things can change in a hurry for the better or the worse. So you’ve got to stay on top of it and keep doing the things we need to do to have success."
The Sabres had not played since Jan. 31 and went six straight days through Friday with nine players on the NHL’s COVID protocol list. Coach Ralph Krueger, 61, also tested positive and had symptoms for more than a week.
Three of the Sabres’ top six defensemen — Jake McCabe, Brandon Montour and Rasmus Ristolainen — along with forwards Curtis Lazar, Casey Mittelstadt and Dylan Cozens remained on the league’s protocol list on Monday. As a result, defensemen William Borgen and Brandon Davidson made their season debut for the Sabres.
Last month, the Islanders lost two games in Washington to the COVID-depleted Capitals, who won 3-2 on Jan. 26 and 6-3 two nights later while missing No. 1 goalie Ilya Samsonov, Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and defenseman Dmitry Orlov.
"I was a little disappointed in our start. I thought we would come out with a little more juice," Islanders coach Barry Trotz said. "You knew Buffalo would be very excited. I knew they might be a little rusty. But they came out enthused and Varly was real strong for us. We were a little loose with the puck, not really making firm plays. Then we settled in the last five minutes of the first period."
But only because Varlamov made a momentum-turning save at 15:05 of the first period, sliding to his left to deny Victor Olofsson, whose shot off Jack Eichel’s backhand feed from the slot hit the goalie’s pad and then the post.
"It was huge," Trotz said. "Varly wasn’t tested too much, but when he was tested, he made big-time timely saves for us. Not chasing that game was really important for us."
Jean-Gabriel Pageau extended his goal streak to three games with a wrist shot from the right off the rush to make it 2-0 at 18:21. Linus Ullmark (26 saves) likely should have handled it.
Olofsson’s power-play one-timer from high in the right circle brought the Sabres within 2-1 at 1:40 of the second period. But the Sabres were outshot 12-0 in the third period, marking the first time since 2011 that they went without a shot in a period.
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