ELMONT, NY — The excuses, if they needed them, were already built in for the Islanders on Tuesday night.
It was their first game back home after a weeklong West Coast trip, when the energy tanks tend to be low. The Maple Leafs, 4-1-1 in their last six games, have looked like a legitimate contender all season long and are still battling for home ice in the first round. Leading Islanders goal scorer Brock Nelson left in the first period and did not return, the victim of a borderline hit from behind headfirst into the wall from Toronto’s Noel Acciari.
The Islanders fought through all of that in the form of a 7-2 triumph, capturing arguably their most impressive and important win of the season. They increased their lead for the top wild-card spot to three points over the Florida Panthers, who lost in Philadelphia, and opened up a four-point lead on the nosediving Pittsburgh Penguins, who are on the outside looking in. Their playoff chances have never been better.
Though Nelson’s absence is a huge concern (Lane Lambert provided no update after the game), particularly with Mathew Barzal still not even skating yet, the Islanders are lately showcasing some attributes that make teams particularly dangerous in the postseason.
First and foremost there’s goalie Ilya Sorokin, who was far and away the star of Tuesday’s win. Sorokin made several game-changing saves, none bigger than his breathtaking paddle stop on Erik Gustafsson at 12:37 of the first period that would have given Toronto a 2-0 lead and helped the Islanders find their legs. It was a near-carbon copy of his incredible save on Artemi Panarin at Madison Square Garden last season, and even better than a similar stop on Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang last month.
Ilya Sorokin with a huge denial! ✋ pic.twitter.com/c4xh6Mn5OW
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) March 22, 2023
“You almost feel like you got one for free,” said Cal Clutterbuck, who had two goals and an assist, for his first career three-point game.
Captain Anders Lee, whose third-period goal capped the scoring, said: “It woke us up on the bench. I think that turned the tide. We needed that.”
The Islanders responded with three goals in the middle frame by Zach Parise, Hudson Fasching and Clutterbuck, and Sorokin sprinkled a few more highlight reel saves in, too, including a blocker denial of Auston Mathews alone in the slot and a short-handed breakaway stop of David Kämpf when the game was still 1-1. He made 23 saves in all, winning for the sixth time in his last seven starts.
Another encouraging sign, as the Islanders get ever closer to a playoff spot with just 10 games left on the schedule, is that they’re playing a physical, detailed style in their own zone — the kind of game they’re known for when everything is clicking. Coach Lane Lambert called Tuesday’s third period, in which the Islanders outscored the Leafs 4-1, “our most complete.”
Part of that was because of their physicality, which has been particularly evident in the last two games, including Saturday’s 4-1 win in San Jose. Alexander Romanov, especially, seems to be dialing up that part of his game, which is a big part of the reason the Islanders gave up their 2022 first-round pick to Montreal to land him.
It’s been a bit of an uneven season for Romanov, but he’s been making himself noticeable — in a good way — lately. On a few different occasions this season he’s delivered heavy, open ice checks — including Saturday in San Jose when he flattened the Sharks’ top forward, Tomas Hertl, in the first period, and again Tuesday when he ran Leafs forward Bobby McMann midway through the third period with the Islanders up 4-2.
Romanov crushes McCann with a perfect hip check pic.twitter.com/zKMCq1nS7n
— Rob Taub (@RTaub_) March 22, 2023
“It sure makes people second-guess when they’re freewheeling down that side of the ice,” Clutterbuck said of Romanov after Tuesday’s win. “I think people are starting to pay attention. As long as he continues to do it at the right time, I think it’s great.”
Clutterbuck, of course, will always try to play that style, running the Sharks’ Matt Benning in the second period Saturday, forcing him to the dressing room for a brief stretch. He had seven hits against the Sharks and five more Tuesday.
Upping their physicality in the defensive zone, in particular, is “something that we’ve talked a lot about,” Parise said. “I think we’ve done a really good job of that.”
Speaking after Saturday’s game in which some of the Islanders’ big hits seemed to affect the outcome against the Sharks, Lee said: “I think we do that most nights, and when we do, we definitely have success. That’s kind of the way we need to play down the stretch, for sure, is bring that side of the game that we have and use it to our advantage.”
Whether the Islanders did that most nights as Lee suggested throughout the first two-thirds of the season is debatable, but they continued it Tuesday, outhitting Toronto 36-15 for the game. And, they’re going to have to approach every game that way now, as they remain in a dogfight for a playoff spot.
Romanov agreed that now is a perfect time for the Islanders to ramp up their physicality.
“Yeah, of course,” he said. “Nobody likes to play against (a) physical team. It’s always hard. I think we’re physical and aggressive. That’s tough to play against.”
It’s often said teams that need to fight tooth and nail just to get in could have a bit of a competitive edge on their opponents, at least in the early going. The Islanders may need that kind of advantage if they’re to face the Bruins, Hurricanes or Devils in the first round, three teams that have had much more consistent and impressive regular seasons.
Lambert was asked whether he believes in that theory.
“I think it just becomes a completely new situation, but certainly there can be arguments that if you have played meaningful games towards the end that it does help a little bit,” he said.
Kyle Palmieri agreed it could help “maybe a little bit,” pointing out it’s good to get into the habit of quickly moving on after a loss, simply out of necessity — a key component of playoff success. That’s what the Islanders did after dropping back-to-back games in regulation to Washington and Los Angeles last week, for example.
“You look at the last 15, 20 games of the season, it’s similar to one big playoff series, where you might lose a game … but you can’t get down,” Palmieri said. “All it takes is one game to flip the script and get some momentum building the other way.”
The script now says the Islanders are playing their best hockey of the season and could be a handful for any first-round opponent. They’ve won three in a row, are 7-2-1 in their last 10, and have winnable games on the horizon later this week against lowly Columbus on Friday and suddenly inept Buffalo at home Saturday.
“You always talk about playing well at the right time of the year. And for us, it’s been a tight race for us for a while now — not a ton of room for error,” Parise said. “We’ve got to get comfortable playing these tight games and hopefully everything works out and we find ourselves in one of those wild-card spots.”
If they do, they’ll have two key attributes — goaltending and physicality — that every team covets in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“Those two things,” Parise said, “go a long way.”
(Photo of Hudson Fasching celebrating his second-period goal: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)