Rookie Gibson helps Isles clinch playoff spot
Neophyte Netminder Backstops Brooklyn-based NHL Squad into Playoffs
The New York Islanders wanted no part of “backing into” the playoffs in their first season here in Downtown Brooklyn.
Thanks to the heroics of rookie goaltender Christopher Gibson, a furious third-period rally and Thomas Hickey’s overtime goal, our borough’s NHL franchise punched its ticket to the postseason without any outside help Tuesday night in Washington, D.C., pulling out a dramatic 4-3 victory over the Capitals.
“We didn’t [want to] wait for someone else to do it for us,” said Hickey, who suffered a skate cut along his face, which he called “minor” before potting the game-winner and playoff-clincher at 2:13 of the extra session.
The Boston Bruins wound up losing in a shootout to Carolina later Tuesday, a result that would have assured the Islanders a playoff berth regardless of the outcome in our nation’s capital.
The Islanders, who have warded off a long list of critical injuries during this stretch run, were intent on skating off the ice in front of 18,506 fans at the Verizon Center with their playoff spot wrapped up.
“That’s the right way to do it,” added Hickey. “You’d rather do it the hard way than the easy way.”
There has been nothing easy about the franchise’s initial campaign on the corners of Atlantic and Flatbush avenues.
From suspect ice conditions to less-than-capacity crowds at Barclays Center to an ongoing list of injuries, which includes starting goaltender Jaroslav Halak, top defenseman Travis Hamonic, and clutch forward Cal Clutterbuck, the Isles have persevered
And even thrived.
“Tonight was a huge measuring stick here for us,” said Kyle Okposo, who helped New York come back from a 3-1 third-period deficit by stuffing home a rebound at the 8:40 mark to shave Washington’s lead to one.
Anders Lee deflected a point shot from Nick Leddy past Washington goalie Braden Holtby just 1:45 later, evening the contest.
Gibson, making his first career NHL start, stopped 29 shots en route to his first NHL win, but it was his desperation save on a breakaway by Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov in overtime that paved the way for Hickey’s game-ending score.
“In my mind I was like, ‘I have to stop this to keep this going,’” Gibson said. “Lucky enough, I made the save there, and we won the game.”
Islanders head coach Jack Capuano, who watched his squad grind out a 5-2 win over defending Eastern Conference champion Tampa Bay just one night earlier, was more than just a little impressed by Gibson’s resilience in net against the President’s Trophy-winning Capitals.
Especially after likely Hart Trophy winner Alexander Ovechkin beat Gibson on his first shot of the game.
Ovechkin lit the lamp again at 1:15 of the third to break a 1-1 deadlock, and T.J. Oshie made it 3-1 just over five minutes later to drop the Isles into a formidable late hole.
But Gibson, New York’s fourth-string goalie, stood tall the rest of the way.
“It was a great win for our goaltender with the way he played tonight,” Capuano gushed after nailing down the Isles’ second straight postseason berth and third in four years.
“He played with a lot of confidence,” Capuano added. “Ovechkin’s first, it was a great shot, Oshie was screening him. Nothing you can do about it. But he regrouped, stayed poised, stayed confident, believed in himself and that’s what you need back there. I couldn’t be more pleased for him.”
Team captain John Tavares, clearly playing his best hockey when the Isles need him most, delivered a second straight three-point night, scoring his team-high 31st goal before assisting on Okposo’s third-period tally and Hickey’s OT winner.
“We knew we get a win, we’re in,” noted Tavares. “Winning always feels good.”
It will feel even better later this month if the Isles end their ongoing postseason drought.
New York has not won a postseason series since 1993, including last year’s opening-round, seven-game ouster at the hands of the Capitals.
Brooklyn will now serve as a backdrop to the NHL playoffs for the first time ever. And the Isles hope to fill Barclays Center to the rafters for weeks to come.
“It’s huge,” Hickey said of grabbing a playoff spot with three regular-season games remaining, including Thursday’s tilt at Madison Square Garden against the arch rival Rangers.
“We knew we were going to get there,” he added. “But as the games counted down, you want to make sure.”
Isle Have Another: Clutterbuck, Cole de Haan, Hamonic, Halak and rookie goaltender Jean-Francois Berube were all unavailable to the Isles on Tuesday night … Tavares has racked up eight points (four goals, four assists) in his last four games. His next goal will tie him with John Tonelli (206) for 10th place on the team’s all-time list … By winning four of their last five games, the Isles have moved a season-high 18 games above .500 at 44-26-9.
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