Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Islanders 4, Maple Leafs 3, OT

Comrie's Two Goals, Park's Three Assists, Help Isles Overcome a Depleted Back Line

While the stakes were certainly lower, tonight's victory over the Leafs rivaled last spring's playoff-clinching, shootout win over the Devils in terms of pure excitement. It's not often that a December game gets you to jump out of your chair and pump your fist in triumph. In fact, I think the last time I did that was for Dubie's now-legendary poke check. Circumstances conspired to make this an absolutely thrilling victory.

Let's start with the late news that Radek Martinek was scratched with a hip injury that is being termed day to day. Certainly, the Isles are fortunate to have two veteran d-men waiting to break back into the lineup, and Bryan Berard got the call. But Martinek's quiet, responsible defense is not easily replicated, especially not by a more offensive-minded player like Berard. As the game began to unfold, and the Leafs took an early 1-0 lead, it looked as though the Isles back line would not be able shoulder the load without the steady Martinek.

Much to the delight of Islander fans everywhere, the defense bent but didn't break. Meanwhile, the offense picked up its play to the tune of three first-period goals causing Howie Rose to invoke the spirit of opening night as well as the defunct New York Arrows of the old MISL. That brought back great memories for me, as my first trips to the Coliseum were not to see the Islanders, but to watch Steve Zungul, Branko Segota, Shep Messing, Renato Cila, et al., lead the arrows to four consecutive championships of their own. On this night, it was Andy Hilbert, Mike Comrie, and Bill Guerin filling the net, with Richard Park picking up assists on the second and third goals.

The momentum from the offensive outburst in the first was stifled at the beginning of the second with the news that a knee injury would keep Rick DiPietro from returning. DiPietro tweaked the knee during the pre-game warmup, and FSN was right on the ball with bird's-eye-view footage of the injury as it happened. DiPietro is scheduled to be re-evaluated on Thursday. With a rusty Wade Dublielewicz in net and the hulking Leafs finding more than enough room to operate, the outlook wasn't brilliant for the Long Island Locals. You could see the difference in positioning between Dubie and DP. You could also see the difference in physical skills. But Dubie pulled it together, shook off the rust, and became a key player in a scoreless second.

A boring third was just what the doctor ordered. Alex Steen would not cooperate, however, notching his second goal of the game, a shorthanded seeker to the top-left corner, to square things just 1:15 into the final (or not so final) frame. From there it was a battle of chances. When Comrie is battling people like Hal Gill for the puck and winning, despite the action looking like a deleted scene from Lord of the Rings, you know there's something to cheer about. Dubie held strong, but was matched by Andrew Raycroft, and we found ourselves in overtime.

In the extra session, a hard-to-figure hooking penalty (the Isles' fourth of the night) against Park put the home team at a 4-on-3 disadvantage. Having already missed on a couple of prime scoring opportunities, the odds of the Isles coming away with the second point looked slim. The Toronto power play put on as much pressure as you can imagine. A power-play OT game winner seemed inevitable. Brendan Witt and Andy Sutton, exhausted from being pinned in their own end and following quick passes back and forth, found the reserves to get in the way of pucks and clear them. Dubie saw the puck better and better and wouldn't let it through.

Park returned to the ice with 43 seconds left, and a chance at a shootout win suddenly seemed more realistic. Except Park wasn't interested in waiting that long. He stripped Jason Blake of the puck at the Isles' own blue line and tore down the ice toward Raycroft on a two-on-one with Comrie. Park didn't get all of his slapper, but Raycroft left a rebound after stopping the puck with his left pad. Comrie swooped in and knocked the loose puck under the Toronto goalie for the game winner, setting off a jubilant celebration on the ice and in the stands. Park recorded his career-best third assist on the play. The Islanders deserve a lot of credit for overcoming some key losses, sticking together, and entertaining their fans with an exhilarating victory.


Meathead said...

Wow, Outsider, your coverage rocks! I guess the Isles are doing okay. The Atlantic Division looks tight--everyone has a winning record, and only 5 points separate the top from the bottom. Very competitive!

Hope you have a great New Year's, Outsider!

Cousin Meathead

Outsider said...

Thanks for checking in! Luckily, Philly went through a little dry spell there, and now we have a chance to take 2 points from the Devils on Saturday. It could stay tight like this all year.

Hope you have a great New Year's too!