ST. PAUL, Minn. — The Islanders’ penalty kill turnaround since just about this time last year has been nothing short of remarkable.
That word, remarkable, also described the Isles’ special teams in Tuesday night’s 4-1 win over the red-hot Wild. They killed off all five Wild power plays, two early in the first and two late in the third, had two power-play goals for just the fifth time this season and added an empty-net, shorthanded goal to seal it.
“It can be a real momentum change for us,” said Frans Nielsen, a penalty-kill mainstay in his years with the Isles who was part of a PK that was well below 80 percent efficiency each of the past two seasons. “We’re up 1-0 early, up 3-1 late and they get a power play, we just kill it off.”
There were two segments of Tuesday’s game that could have turned with a Wild power-play goal. Matt Martin’s bull rush to the net to stuff a loose puck past Devan Dubnyk just 1:24 into the first period put the Isles up early, but they took two minors in the first 6:57 to give Minnesota a chance to rev up its offense that had produced 21 goals in four straight wins under interim coach John Torchetti.
But the aggressive penalty killers, backed by another strong outing from Jaroslav Halak, turned those early chances aside. And Nielsen’s redirect of John Tavares’ pass on the Isles’ first power play gave the visitors a 2-0 lead after one.
“Last year, with some new guys, a new PK coach (assistant Greg Cronin), it was tough getting used to a new style,” said Halak, who made 30 saves for his second straight win. “The second half of last season we were really good and we just started this year the way we finished last year.”
Since allowing two power-play goals in three opportunities to the Canucks on Feb. 22, 2015, the Isles have allowed only 27 goals in 224 times short (87.9 percent) since. Their forwards are pressuring the point men well, the defensemen are getting in shooting lanes and clearing attempts do not induce breath-holding.
Chris Porter’s goal with 26.1 seconds left in the second cut the Isles lead to 2-1, but a strong start to the third got them a power play and nifty passing left Tavares alone in front for an easy sweep-in and a 3-1 lead at 2:42.
The Isles gave the Wild two more power-play chances after that, but the aggressiveness was still there. Halak, who looked lost for a four-start stretch over the previous few weeks, was there to stay strong on his pads and cover up any mistakes.
And Nielsen was there to fling a giveaway down to the net Dubnyk vacated at 17:16 to seal the Isles’ sixth win in their last eight.
“Those kills have been momentum swings for us, especially the early ones,” said Anders Lee, who assisted on both power-play goals. “The way Jaro’s playing, the way the PK is playing, it’s not the be-all, end-all when we take a penalty. That’s a big boost.”