Turnovers and loose defensive play still hurt the Islanders. Anders Lee thought his team had better performances during its five-game losing streak. Coach Barry Trotz said setting his lineup has been "difficult" as he searches for the right mix to give the team energy and confidence through some "indifferent" play. He said he needs more from his "top group."
But there’s no denying how important Saturday night’s flawed 4-3 win over the Penguins at Nassau Coliseum was to the Islanders as they rallied with a pair of third-period goals.
"Probably like a starving person needing food, that’s how badly we needed it," Trotz said. "I didn’t like a lot of things. But I liked the response after the goal."
Lee scored the game-winning power-play goal at 17:16 of the third period when he pushed in a loose puck in the crease after defenseman Ryan Pulock’s shot. It was the game’s only man advantage, with Teddy Blueger off for delay of game after flipping the puck over the glass.
"We worked a lot on special teams," said Jordan Eberle, who scored twice. "I liked the way we moved the puck. It got us a win."
The victory pulled the Islanders (4-4-2) within one point of the fourth-place Penguins in the East Division. Four of the division’s eight teams will qualify for the playoffs in this 56-game season.
The Islanders, who also got two assists from Michael Dal Colle and 28 saves from Semyon Varlamov in his 500th NHL game, had been unexpectedly idle since concluding an 0-3-2 road trip with a 4-3 overtime loss in Philadelphia last Sunday. Scheduled games against the Sabres on Tuesday and Thursday were postponed because that team has seven players and 61-year-old coach Ralph Krueger, who tested positive, on the NHL’s COVID protocol list.
"That trip, it didn’t go the way we wanted it to," Lee said. "We just took this week to take a step back and work on our game and rest up. Tonight wasn’t the prettiest game or the best game we’ve played recently. But it doesn’t matter. We found a way tonight."
The Penguins tied the score at 2 on Evgeni Malkin’s goal with 15.8 seconds left in the second period off defenseman Scott Mayfield’s turnover, then took a 3-2 lead at 3:19 of the third period on Jake Guentzel’s rising wrister after Matt Martin dropped his stick and Casey Cizikas lost his defensive assignment.
But the fourth line redeemed itself quickly. Cal Clutterbuck, with his first goal in 20 regular-season games dating to Dec. 5, 2019, tied it at 3 at 8:23 when he stuffed in Cizikas’ feed at the crease.
"We were confident even when we were down a goal," said Dal Colle, who joined Brock Nelson’s reconstituted second line with Eberle and notched his first multi-point game in the NHL since being drafted fifth overall in 2014. "We knew if we stuck to the game plan, we’d have a chance."
The Penguins also were coming off an unexpected break in their schedule after home games against the Devils — who have 16 players on the NHL COVID protocol list — were postponed on Tuesday and Thursday.
Eberle gave the Islanders a 1-0 lead at 10:22 of the first period, getting to the crease off Dal Colle’s feed and lifting a backhander over Tristan Jarry (22 saves).
Eberle made it 2-1 at 15:45 of the first period, positioning himself at the right post and depositing the rebound of Nelson’s initial shot after Dal Colle forced a turnover. Rookie defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph’s first NHL goal had tied it at 1 at 13:43.