The Islanders should sleep soundly on their six-hour post-game flight to Vancouver after a blue-collar 4-1 beatdown against Toronto at Nassau Coliseum last night.
Led by Blake Comeau’s phenomenal 3-assist performance and the team’s inpenetrable penalty-killing, the hard-nosed victory gave the team their first back-to-back wins since January and proved that this team has not forgotten there is plenty of season left to play.
The team had also not forgotten that last night was the first time facing Dion Phaneuf since his vicious open-ice hit against Kyle Okposo in the pre-season that left their 21-year-old alternate captain carted off the ice on a stretcher with a concussion.
Despite time that has passed, plenty of people haven’t forgotten that frightening moment.
Islanders fans didn’t. They booed Phaneuf every time he touched the puck.
Neither did Matt Martin, who delivered a swift message early in the first period with a teeth-rattling hit against Phaneuf along the boards that incurred a boarding call against the 20-year-old call-up.
Martin played in that pre-season game against Calgary, too and was forced to watch his teammate lay motionless on the ice for several minutes as a result of the brutal blow.
“You never forget something like that,” Martin “We all kind of thought that was a dirty hit and tonight I think we did a good job of keeping him quiet. You’ve got to be there for your teammates. We’re a family.”
Okposo said he’ll never forget the incident, but that he tried push it to the backburner while his teammates rallied around him.
“The guys really stuck up for me by finishing their checks against him tonight,” Okposo said. “It was nice to see.”
The Islanders first few shifts were not as pretty, when they gave up a couple of breakaways and paid accordingly.
Sprung by a sharp lead pass from Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin scored on a breakaway 57 seconds into the game to give the Leafs a 1-0 lead, but the Islanders’ fourth-line Islanders grinders went to work later in the period to tie the game.
Richard Park and Trevor Gillies both collected assists after Tim Jackman jammed one past Leafs goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere at 2:51.
Giving the Islanders their second shorthanded goal in less than 24 hours—Park tallied at 8:55 courtesy of a keen fore-checking effort and feed from Comeau.
“The execution was there,” Scott Gordon said of his rapidly-improving penalty kill, which has gone 11-for-11 in the past two games.
Since making adjustments after the March 4 game against Atlanta—primarily to focus on clogging the middle of the ice and forcing opponents to the periphery—the Islanders have seen the unit ascend from an Achilles heel to a major strength.
“It has improved a lot,” Okposo said. “Not just statistically speaking, but the number of chances other teams are getting and where those chances are coming from.”
Comeau picked up another assist with a deft dish on Frans Nielsen’s second-period goal and his third of the night on Matt Moulson’s 25th of the season, a power-play tally at 17:40 of the third.
“Blake has been playing really well. He’s picked up his game and is playing with confidence,” Gordon said. “You see flashes of things to get excited about with him.”
After last night, the same might be said about the rest of the team, too.