SAN JOSE, Calif. – It was a familiar feeling for the New York Islanders during the second intermission Tuesday night.
Down two goals to the San Jose Sharks after losing their previous 10 games, the chatter in the locker-room was about continuing to push.
“We’ve talked about it in the past and haven’t really done it,” defenceman Travis Hamonic said.
Finally they did. In beating the Sharks in a shootout, the Islanders won for the first time since Nov. 16 and for just the third time in their past 17 games.
It’s the kind of victory that embattled coach Jack Capuano believes can generate confidence, but captain John Tavares knows it’s not a magic elixir to the team’s problems.
“We still lost 10 in a row,” Tavares said. “We’re still out of the mix here. We have a lot of ground to make up. It’s a good feeling, breeds some confidence and enjoy it, but at the same time there can’t be any let-up from our game and the way we need to play.”
The way the Islanders had been playing was ugly. They were outscored 41-16 during the 10-game skid, picking up just two overtime-loss points.
“It just seems like when you start getting losses like that, they just start building up and building up and you really need something to break the goose egg,” said Hamonic, a longshot Team Canada candidate who was invited to Olympic orientation camp but doesn’t have a point in his past 18 games.
Sometimes it just takes one break to reverse fortunes, but for at least 20 minutes at SAP Center it looked like the Islanders were in trouble again.
The Sharks outshot them 18-3 but New York stayed in the game thanks to a brilliant effort from goaltender Kevin Poulin. The Montreal native finished with 46 saves.
“Your goalie’s got to play well to win games,” Capuano said. “That’s what you need. Teams get it, have we got it? At times we’ve got it, but tonight was an exception and he played well for us and helped us get the win.”
Goaltending has been a point of weakness for the Islanders, though when a team goes almost a month without a win it’s easy to find fault just about everywhere. Every goalie on the roster—Poulin, Anders Nilsson and injured veteran Evgeni Nabokov—has a save percentage below .900 and a goals-against average over 3.00.
“We’re confident in our goaltenders,” said Hamonic, a native of St. Malo, Man. “I don’t think we’ve played very well in front of them as a five-man unit, to be honest with you.”
Early on against the Sharks, the Islanders didn’t look like a cohesive five-man unit. They looked like a last-place team on the way to yet another loss.
Over time, as Poulin kept the Sharks at bay, Tavares made two goals happen, first from in-season trade acquisition Thomas Vanek and then from Kyle Okposo. Not too long later, Vanek and Okposo scored in the shootout and the Islanders were all smiles as they came off the ice.
“Obviously it feels nice to get that one out of the way,” Vanek said. “It’s not the type of game we envisioned, but that’s a really good team over there. With that said, of the 10 we lost there’s some of them where I thought we played probably well enough to win and we didn’t.”
Moral victories don’t get a lot of run in the NHL, so actually winning and being able to play music in the locker-room after a game had some special meaning.
“That’s what it’s all about: It’s about the camaraderie and it’s about them staying together and working hard,” Capuano said. “That’s what this game’s about and enjoying it. I’m extremely pleased that they got that feeling.”
The Islanders have just nine wins in 32 games, and they’re six points back of Columbus for seventh place in the mediocre Metropolitan Division.
“I still think there’s a lot of things we need to be better at and turn the tides a little bit in the way we play,” Tavares said.
Maybe beating the Sharks will turn that tide. Picking up two points against anyone in any way would have been something, but this means more to Capuano because of the degree of difficulty.
“We respect this team, we know how good they are,” he said. “It can help you knowing that you come into a building against a real good hockey club in the West and come back from a two-goal deficit.”
If getting outshot 48-28 can have a benefit, Capuano believes the Islanders can learn a thing or two from San Jose.
“We talk about the shots that you want to take, they shoot pucks from every angle, and their second goal was a prime example of that off the pads and the rebound,” he said. “We talk about those things all the time.”
Talk is all well and good, but ultimately it means little without results. Capuano, Vanek and Hamonic all said the Islanders felt like they deserved better at times during the 10-game losing streak.
Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. Because of some luck, opportunistic offence and stellar goaltending, the skid is over.
“We weren’t playing awful, but we were getting better and better,” Poulin said. “It’s definitely a step in the right direction.”
Follow Stephen Whyno on Twitter at @SWhyno.