Islanders do just enough, defeat Canadiens 4-2 to clinch playoff berth

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Islanders Canadiens Brock Nelson
New York Islanders’ Brock Nelson (29) is congratulated after scoring against the Montreal Canadiens during the second period of an NHL hockey game Wednesday, April 12, 2023, in Elmont, N.Y. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

ELMONT, N.Y. — The seemingly never-ending game of hot potato between the New York Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins passing up golden opportunities to lock up the final Eastern Conference playoff spot is over — and it’s the Islanders who have snuck their way in.

For the fourth time in five years, the Islanders will contend for the Stanley Cup after squeaking by the lowly Montreal Canadiens 4-2 in their 2022-23 regular-season finale on Wednesday night at UBS Arena behind two goals from Brock Nelson including the game-winner in the second period, 19 saves from Ilya Sorokin, and just enough gumption to overcome the glaring issues that have plagued them for most of the season.

“Obviously different emotions compared to yesterday after the Washington game, but we had a chance at home and wanted to take advantage of it,” Nelson said after his side got a huge helper from the Chicago Blackhawks, who defeated the Penguins on Tuesday night to keep the Islanders’ playoff hopes alive following a disheartening loss to the Washington Capitals. “I thought we did everything we needed to.”

The Islanders’ (42-31-9, 93 points) first-round opponent is still unknown for now. Their final seeding hinges on the result of the Florida Panthers’ final game of the regular season on Thursday night against the Carolina Hurricanes. If the Panthers, who have 92 points, defeat the Carolina Hurricanes, they get the No. 1 Wild Card spot which would relegate the Islanders to playing the powerhouse Boston Bruins.

Should the Panthers lose, the Islanders will take on the winner of the Metropolitan Division — either the Hurricanes or New Jersey Devils. 

“It’s a sigh of relief,” defenseman Noah Dobson, who tallied a pair of assists, said. “It just shows how tough this league is to get into the playoffs. It takes all 82 games to grind but I thought… we dug in deep and we deserve to be in.”

Nelson got the Islanders on the board — and tested the integrity of UBS Arean’s roof — 10:27 into the game when he sniped his 35th goal of the season over the blocker side of Canadiens goalie Sam Montembeault. 

The goal put the All-Star center in rarified Islanders air, becoming just the 11th skater in franchise history to record multiple 35-plus-goal seasons (he scored 37 last year). 

“Our line did some good things to generate,” Nelson said of his budding partnership with Kyle Palmieri and Pierre Engvall. “We’ve done that for a few weeks… Knowing what was at stake, I think everyone tried to get up as much as you can.”

But that first goal seemed to supply an air of complacency as the Islanders stopped pushing and lost focus. 

Noah Dobson turned the puck over on the right boards of his own zone, allowing Jake Evans to find a wide-open Rem Pitlick just above the left goal line for a one-time finish into an open net with 2:22 to go in the first as Sorokin — who made his fair share of vital saves amidst the momentary swoon in the second half of the period — didn’t have a chance. 

Hudson Fasching Islanders
New York Islanders’ Hudson Fasching (20) smiles after a goal against the Montreal Canadiens during the first period of an NHL hockey game Wednesday, April 12, 2023, in Elmont, N.Y. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Montreal’s opener jolted the Islanders back into alignment as they found a reply just 1:19 later when Hudson Fasching — who burst onto the scene out of nowhere to be one of the team’s most valuable players of the season — stuffed home a loose puck that laid at the feet of a sprawled-out Montemault after a Zach Parise tip rang off the crossbar. 

“You get a real feel for a player and we continue to see him doing things that we like,” head coach Lane Lambert said about Fasching. “When I talk about contributions from everyone to be in this position right now, he is certainly one of those guys.”

Nelson got his second 10:20 into the second to put the hosts up two with a deft deflection while stationed between the circles. A shot from Dobson at the point was directed downward by Wednesday night’s hero and it bounced under Montembeault and into the back of the net. 

“He’s been great,” Islanders captain Anders Lee said of Nelson. “He’s had a phenomenal season and we’ve leaned on him for big moments and goals for many years, not just this year.”

In theory, the Islanders had a chance to build their advantage on a power play after Brendan Gallagher tripped Fasching. But New York’s inept man-advantage unit came up lame as Montreal’s Nick Suzuki out-raced Samuel Bolduc to a rolling puck in front of Sorokin’s goal off a clear and, while sliding, chipped it with one hand over the netminder for a highlight-worthy short-handed goal with 3:22 to go in the period.

Bolduc was benched for the rest of the game after that play.

“He could have maintained body position on Suzuki,” Lambert said. “That’s a young player learning and growing and he’ll learn from those situations.”

The final 20 minutes saw the Islanders revert to their defensive game, yielding just five Canadiens shots in the third period to secure the win, but Anders Lee provided the exclamation point with a deflected power-play goal to end their lengthy nine-game man-advantage drought with 3:59 to go in regulation.

“It was textbook,” Dobson said of the Islanders’ defensive efforts. “When we’re locking it down like that, it’s hard to get through and hard to play against.”

For more on the Islanders, visit AMNY.com