The Islanders faced off against the NHL's best team Thursday night and showed, perhaps once and for all in this stirring season, that they too must be considered among the league's top teams.
In a dominating performance dotted with a few hiccups, the Islanders earned a 5-2 win over the Nashville Predators -- who lead the league with 84 points, five more than the Isles -- at the Coliseum.
The Isles got three goals from their defensemen, overcame the early loss of Mikhail Grabovski to a concussion and strafed Pekka Rinne, one of the league's best goaltenders, for five goals.
"We know we have a good team, we believe we can beat any team in this league and we expect to," John Tavares said. "They're a very deep team with a goaltender who's been all-world this year. But if we can wear teams down and make them defend, we like our chances."
That was true even when a 3-0 first-period lead dwindled to 3-2 after two periods. The last time the Islanders were at the Coliseum, on Monday against the Rangers, they also had a one-goal lead entering the third period. That lead expanded to two but disappeared with some soft play and a missed penalty call.
But Thursday night, the Islanders never let the Predators get going in the third. They allowed one shot through roughly seven minutes of the final period before Matt Martin and Colin McDonald, who teamed for Brock Nelson's eventual game-winner in Raleigh two nights earlier, again combined to set up a crucial score.
Martin chipped the puck past Predators captain Shea Weber and McDonald corralled it. McDonald threaded a pass to Nick Leddy, jumping into the rush, and Leddy buried a wrist shot over Rinne for a 4-2 lead, adding to earlier goals by defensemen Brian Strait and Johnny Boychuk in the first period.
Just 1:39 later, another counter-attack gave the Isles room off the rush. Tavares waited for Josh Bailey to cruise into space and Bailey got the puck around Rinne and tried to tuck it in from nearly behind the net. It didn't work, but Predators defenseman Roman Josi's clearing attempt hit Rinne and caromed in, cementing the Isles' 39th win. Their 79 points matches their season total from the past three 82-game seasons. They have 23 games remaining.
"Every game's a different story," said Strait, who jumped into the rush and snapped a shot past Rinne one minute into the game for his second of the season. "We had a bit of a lull game in Carolina but we got through it and got two points. Tonight we put it together for three periods, pretty much."
Jaroslav Halak gave up goals to Filip Forsberg with 17.2 seconds left in the first period and James Neal with 3:22 left in the second, but he was strong in making 30 saves for his 32nd win of the season, tying the franchise record held by Billy Smith, Rick DiPietro and Chris Osgood.
They were able to play a forceful game down a man, with Grabovski knocked from the contest 8:21 in on a big, legal hit by Eric Nystrom. "I'm sure he's going to be out a while," Jack Capuano said.
Essential to the Islanders' success is being able to beat the other elite teams.
"We didn't really touch on the fact that they're No. 1 in the league," Bailey said. "We've had that focus no matter who we're playing. They're a great team and we did a really good job tonight."