Islanders alive, but skating on thin ice
Remain on Outskirts of Contention with Overtime Win in Nashville
Five points out of an Eastern Conference playoff spot with only six points available to them spells almost certain doom for the New York Islanders in their second season here in our fair borough.
But as seemingly impossible as their quest to reach the postseason for a third consecutive campaign might seem, interim head coach Doug Weight’s unit refuses to give in.
That was in clear evidence Tuesday night in Nashville as Thomas Hickey’s dramatic overtime goal lifted the Isles to a 2-1 victory over the Predators in front of a sellout crowd of 17,113 at Bridgestone Arena.
“We earned it,” Weight said of the team’s third consecutive win with the season on the line.
Without the narrow escape, New York would have been officially eliminated from playoff contention, something that is likely to occur at some point during its final three regular-season games, beginning Thursday night in Carolina.
But until further notice, these Isles (88 points) continue to chase points and pray that the Toronto Maple Leafs (93 points), current leaders of the second wild card, will collapse down the stretch.
Tampa Bay (88 points) is also in the hunt, and can actually do the desperate Isles a favor by knocking off the Maple Leafs on Thursday night in Toronto.
“The thing for tonight was we needed two points,” Weight emphasized. “To get a ROW [regulation or overtime win] on top of it was pretty great, but we needed the two points and that’s what it was going to come down to.”
Brock Nelson erased a 1-0 deficit early in the third period and Jaroslav Halak, who has played nearly flawlessly in net since his recall from AHL Bridgeport, made 22 saves.
Halak also picked up an assist on Hickey’s game-winning tally for New York, which improved to 2-0 since captain John Tavares went down for the season with a lower-body injury (hamstring).
“There was no way we could afford to give away any points,” noted Hickey, who actually went from his traditional defenseman’s role to playing left wing during the 3-on-3 overtime session.
“There was no scoreboard watching and we’ll reevaluate, but if we got two then I know we’re alive.”
Halak improved to 4-1 since returning to the NHL on March 24, when he began his season-ending comeback tour with a 4-3 shootout win in Pittsburgh.
The 31-year-old Czech goalie was persona non grata around the organization after general manager Garth Snow demoted him just prior to the start of the new year, doubtlessly in the hopes of trading Halak.
But when starter Thomas Greiss displayed an inability to carry the lion’s share of the goaltending load, and backup Jean-Francois Berube appeared not yet ready for prime time, Halak was summoned back into the crease.
He has galvanized the Brooklyn NHL franchise during this stretch run, and rejuvenated his own career in the process.
“We just have to take it one game at a time right now,” said Halak, who remains the franchise’s all-time single-season wins leader with the 38 victories he piled up during the 2014-15 campaign, which was also the franchise’s last on Long Island.
Mike Fisher scored the only goal for Nashville, which has dropped four of its last five games, but is already locked into a Western Conference playoff spot.
The Isles, who had lost 12 of their previous 19 overtime contests, didn’t have to wait long to know they were heading to Carolina with a playoff spot still mathematically within their reach.
Halak moved the puck up to Josh Bailey, who dropped it for Hickey with less than a minute-and-a-half gone by in the overtime. The 28-year-old blue liner swept a low wrist shot past Nashville netminder Pekka Rinne to keep hope alive for the Isles.
At least for another day or two, that is.
“We just talked about a period at a time, our season is on the line and trying to stick with it,” Hickey said. “We were up to the challenge. We played really hard, Jaro was excellent and period by period and a chance to win it in OT. It was an important point.”
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The Nets continued their strong finish to an otherwise dismal campaign Tuesday night, lighting up the shorthanded Philadelphia 76ers en route to a 141-118 demolition before 14,580 fans at the Wells Fargo Center.
Jeremy Lin and Brook Lopez, finally displaying the pick-and-roll prowess that general manager Sean Marks was hoping for when he signed the veteran point guard this past summer, each scored 16 points for league-worst Brooklyn (19-59).
Reserve guard Archie Goodwin made the most of extended garbage time after the Nets put up a franchise record 81 points in the first half.
He scored 14 points off the bench in his first game since signing a multiyear deal with the Nets, who have reeled off three straight wins for the first time this season and are 10-10 since the beginning of March.
“It helps our morale,” said first-year Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson of the team’s late-season progress. “I think the fans can appreciate that they see progress.”
The Nets will be back in action Thursday night in Orlando.