A 3-2 shootout win over the Maple Leafs, made possible by Rick DiPietro’s outstanding goaltending, moved them even with Toronto in ninth place in the NHL’s Eastern Conference and to within two points of eighth-place Montreal.
Beating a just-as-desperate Toronto team right in Air Canada Centre, where they hadn’t won in 11 previous visits since a March 2002 victory, lent a load of legitimacy to the challenge being mounted by coach Ted Nolan’s team for a post-season berth.
There is nothing exciting about the way they play, but Nolan gets the most out of what he’s got.
Frans Nielsen and Viktor Kozlov beat Andrew Raycroft in the shootout, while only Mats Sundin could get a puck past DiPietro.
In regulation, Trent Hunter and Miro Satan scored for the Islanders and Pavel Kubina and Bates Battaglia for Toronto.
Both teams have been on a mission to move into the top eight in the East and snag a playoff spot. In their previous 10 games, Toronto had earned points from eight and New York had earned points from nine.
It shaped up as a seesaw battle before the first puck was dropped, and DiPietro made sure that’s what transpired.
The Islanders came within a centimetre or two or getting the first goal when Andy Hilbert lifted a backhander that at first appeared to have Raycroft beaten, but Raycroft lunged and made a miraculous save by getting his mitt in front of the puck. It rolled to the goal-line and he reached back with his stick to keep it from going in.
Kubina opened the scoring with a power-play goal at 6:14. Fred Meyer was in the box when Kubina slapped a drive from just inside the blue-line that went through DiPietro’s legs. It was Kubina’s fifth goal. The six-foot-four Czech has scored all five in the last 14 games.
Raycroft robbed Randy Robitaille late in the opening period, but the Islanders beat him with their first two shots of the second. Hunter got his 15th with a wrist shot into the top short-side corner of the net at 4:49 from the circle to the left of Raycroft, and Satan got his 20th at 5:16 with a backhand wave at a rebound.
Battaglia tied it 2-2 at 9:00 when he emerged from behind the net to DiPietro’s right, waited for DiPietro to kneel, and lifted a backhand shot over the goalie’s right shoulder for his 10th of the season.
Battaglia got a breakaway in the fifth minute of the third period. With DiPietro on his chest in the crease, Battaglia was unable to lift the puck high enough and shot into DiPietro’s right leg pad.
DiPietro then stole a goal from Tomas Kaberle by stretching to snare a labelled shot.
Toronto outshot New York 16-1 in the third period. The only shot Raycroft had to handle was a harmless slapper from centre. The Leafs were up 37-16 on the shots counter heading into overtime. DiPietro had earned his team at least one point.
Alex Steen had a good chance to end it two minutes into sudden death when he was set up at the edge of the Islanders crease, but he fanned on his shot.
In the shootout, Nielsen deked and beat Raycroft with a backhander, DiPietro stopped Alexei Ponikarovsky with a right leg save, Raycroft stuck his right foot out to stop a Satan shot, Sundin beat DiPietro with a low wrist shot to the stick side, Kozlov roofed in a backhander, and Nik Antropov shot into DiPietro’s right leg pad.
Notes: The final shots count was 41-19 in front of an announced Air Canada Centre crowd of 19,600 . . . On power plays, Toronto was 1-for-2 and New York was 0-for-1 . . . It was Raycroft’s 18th consecutive start . . . Mats Sundin had a seven-game points streak come to an end on his 36th birthday . . . The Leafs play in Philadelphia on Thursday and are back home Saturday against Edmonton, making its first Toronto appearance since November 2003. Members of the 1967 team that was the last to win the Stanley Cup for Toronto will be honoured in a pre-game ceremony . . . Islanders captain Alexei Yashin missed a seventh straight game with a bum knee . . . Darcy Tucker, who suffered hairline ankle fractures Dec. 26 and played one game before relenting to rehab, has yet to resume skating.