Their roster has changed dramatically, but the Islanders seemed headed down a maddeningly familiar path in the third period of their first game after the Olympics without John Tavares, who suffered a season-ending injury in Sochi.
This game, though, finished very differently.
For the 14th time in 61 games this season, the Islanders coughed up a third-period lead. But an AHL reinforcement called up to fill the void on offense brought the Isles back twice late in the third, and they grabbed a 5-4 win on Lubomir Visnovsky's goal 1:55 into overtime last night at the Coliseum.
Anders Lee scored twice in his season debut, once to tie the score at 3-3 on the power play with 7:08 to go and then again with 2:40 to play on the doorstep of Leafs goaltender Jonathan Bernier. The latter goal, which forced overtime, was confirmed by video review. It squeaked through Bernier and dropped behind him just before referee Kyle Rehman blew the play dead.
"It's almost like we come in here a little naive to the situation," said Lee, who now has three goals in three career NHL games dating to late last season. "We came up to help this team win, the past is the past and we're just moving forward."
Most people see a team that isn't going anywhere but down without Tavares. The Islanders also were missing Frans Nielsen and Matt Martin, two other mainstay forwards. But Lee, Ryan Strome and even little-known call-up Mike Halmo contributed in big ways.
Halmo marked his first NHL shift by putting Leafs star Phil Kessel on his backside with a clean hit, sparking the Nassau Coliseum crowd and embodying the sort of full-tilt effort the Islanders will need to compete without their star during the final six weeks.
"It was fun to see," Michael Grabner said. "We definitely fed off those guys tonight."
Grabner fed off his five-goal Olympic performance for Austria, scoring two shorthanded goals in a 48-second span of the first period to counter Kessel's opening strike. The Islanders nursed that 2-1 lead into the middle section of the third before things got wacky.
Paul Ranger swept in a rebound of James Van Riemsdyk's shot with 11:10 left in the third to tie it. Then Grabner leaked out of his own zone far too early, giving Dion Phaneuf room to blast a rocket by Evgeni Nabokov for a 3-2 Leafs lead with 8:34 to go.
Lee jammed home a feed from Josh Bailey on the power play with 7:08 left to make it 3-3. Just 62 seconds later, Joffrey Lupul blew through the Isles' defense and flipped a backhand past Nabokov to put the Leafs up again.
"This time, we didn't say, 'Oh, it's another one of those games,' " Grabner said. "We didn't give up."
Strome, the bigger name of the three Bridgeport call-ups, sent a feed to the slot for Lee's second goal from in tight. And when Visnovsky hopped on a loose puck after Van Riemsdyk whiffed on a clearing try in OT, the Islanders had at least kicked off what was supposed to be a march to nowhere with a decent reward.
"We worked tonight," Jack Capuano said. "We've worked hard this season, we just haven't gotten the results. We were resilient."