ELMONT — Playoff pedigree goes a long way and despite the Islanders’ inconsistency to find that this season, they appear to be doing so at just the right time — and it’s starting to pay major dividends in the standings.
Hudson Fasching’s knee played the hero on Tuesday night at UBS Arena, as a goal that was originally deemed an illegal kick to redirect a Josh Bailey shot past netminder Ukko-Pekka Luukonen was overturned with 12:23 to go in regulation to lift the Islanders to a 3-2 victory over the Buffalo Sabres.
“Watching the puck going off my knee, I didn’t envision that being the play necessarily, but I’ll take it all day,” Fasching said of his fourth goal of the season, which he also called the biggest goal of his career. “I didn’t think I kicked it but it’s the official’s call. I’m glad they got it right.”
The victory opens up a six-point gap between the Islanders (33-25-8, 74 points), who hold the top Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference, and the Sabres, who are on the outside of the playoff picture looking in and entered Tuesday night’s matchup just four points behind New York with three fewer games played.
They remain one point ahead of the Pittsburgh Penguins, who overturned a 4-0 deficit to defeat the Columbus Blue Jackets in overtime. They visit them on Thursday for another major matchup.
“It’s an important way to start the week,” Islanders captain Anders Lee said. “We got a big week ahead of us, but we knew coming in that there’s a lot on the line.”
Scratching back from a 1-0 deficit, Bailey’s goal 1:51 into the third period gave the Islanders a 2-1 lead, but the Sabres answered just 3:08 later when former Islanders Kyle Okposo’s wrister snuck through traffic and past netminder Ilya Sorokin.
Dylan Cozens broke the deadlock five minutes into the second period when, after winning a puck battle at the Islanders’ blue line, was able to skate freely between the circles before sniping a wrister past the blocker side of Sorokin.
But then Buffalo left the door ajar ever so slightly — and the Islanders nearly kicked it down.
While their offensive zone time had been sparse, New York found an equalizer with 7:22 to go in the second when Casey Cizikas stuffed a pass from behind the net by Hudson Fasching under Luukonen. It was Cizikas’ first goal since Jan. 14 (21 games) and a much-needed lifeline for the hosts that had often been on the backfoot on Tuesday night.
“It’s been a while,” Cizikas joked about breaking his goal drought. “But we’ve been playing well. We’ve had chances and we just keep pushing forward. We don’t let anything get us down and it was nice to chip in tonight.”
A tidal wave of pressure ensued, though they couldn’t find a way to beat Luukkonen again in the frame despite a 17-7 edge in shots. Off separate scrambles in front, Hudson Fasching hit a post and Simon Holmstrom missed tantalizingly wide. Bo Horvat also hit a crossbar on a one-time feed directly off one of the bevy of face-offs the Islanders won — taking over 60% of the draws against Buffalo.
Brock Nelson and Kyle Palmieri had one more big chance at the very end of the second on a 2-on-1 rush that saw Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin fall just in front of his goalie. But Palmieri’s final pass intended for the open Nelson was broken up by the scrambling blue liner as he tried to get back up.
“I thought we imposed our will,” Islanders head coach Lane Lambert said. “We stuck to our game plan and that’s basically the bottom line and it was good to see us get rewarded for it.”
Cizikas picked up his second point of the night with a helper — his shot saved by Luukkonen into the path of Bailey, who backhanded the rebound home to give New York a momentary lead.
While Okposo didn’t keep Buffalo down long, Fasching answered for the Islanders just 2:38 later with 12:23 to go in the game.
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