The climb back into the playoff picture isn’t nearly complete for the New York Islanders. But, it now doesn’t look to be as steep after they won their first game back from the NHL’s All-Star break, beating the Toronto Maple Leafs 3-2 on Monday at Scotiabank Arena.
“It was a great team effort,” head coach Patrick Roy said. “I was very pleased. Our neutral zone forecheck was solid. We were really coming back to tracking. The guys have been buying into what we’re doing and being rewarded on the road against a very good hockey club, that means a lot to us.”
As much as the win meant for the team as a whole, it quite possibly meant slightly more for Pierre Engvall, who scored the winning goal in his first visit back to Toronto since the Maple Leafs traded him to the Islanders last season.
After former Islander captain John Tavares tied the score at 2-2 with a power-play goal late in the third period, the former Leaf Engvall answered back by sweeping a puck through the legs of Toronto netminder Ilya Samsonov with just over two minutes remaining to end a 19 game scoring drought.
“I think I haven’t played my best lately,” Engvall said. “I want to play better. It felt good tonight…To see the puck go in and get the win, especially at the end when it was close in a tight game and get the win was really good for us. To get the win over your old teammates, of course, feels good.”
Letting go of a lead late, on the penalty kill no less, is a scenario that the Islanders have seen play out too many times to count. The difference against Toronto was that instead of letting it sink them, the Islanders used it to lift themselves up.
“What I love the most is that they scored that powerplay goal to tie the game, and our mindset was, let’s go get the next one,” Roy said. “That pleased me a lot to see our guys stay in the present moment and not change our game because we gave up a goal.”
What helped the Islanders hold on, especially in the final minutes as the high-octane Leafs offense played with an extra attacker, was a defense fortified by the return of Ryan Pulock. In his first game since Dec. 7, Pulock returned to the lineup just in time to help the Islanders make a late-season playoff push.
“Out of the break, you want to start strong,” Pulock said. “We know that we’re going to have to put some points together here to get into the playoffs. Tonight was the first step to doing that. Considering the break and some of the rest, I thought we did a pretty good job of being sharp and the little details, and obviously, it was a good win.”
Back behind a fully healthy defense corps for the first time in months, Ilya Sorokin was solid in goal, making 35 saves on 37 shots.
Speaking of firsts, rookie center Kyle MacLean had the biggest of them all when he potted his first-ever NHL goal.
After serving an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on behalf of Bo Horvat, MacLean jumped out of the box and was hit in the open ice with a stretch pass from Cal Clutterbuck and beat Samsonov with a backhand finish on the breakaway.
“It’s a cool situation,” MacLean said. “Maybe after the game here, I’ll have a little bit of a moment, but it was definitely special…I just hopped out of the box there and Cal threw it right to me. I got the breakaway, and it happened kind of quick, but it was a relief to see it cross the goal line.”
MacLean’s goal regained the Islanders’ lead just two minutes after Mitch Marner scored for the Maple Leafs early in the second period.
Still in Toronto from his appearance in the All-Star game, Mathew Barzal may want to take up a residency at Scotiabank Arena after he opened the night with his 14th goal of the year.
Wth the the win, the Islanders complete the season sweep of the Maple Leafs and improve their record to 21-17-12. They’re now within four points of the Philadelphia Flyers in the Metropolitan Division standings and six of teams like the Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings in wild card race.
On Thursday, the Islanders face another team in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff picture as they host the Tampa Bay Lightning at UBS Arnea.