ELMONT — Kyle Palmieri recorded two goals and an assist, including the game-winning tally against his former team, and Ilya Sorokin made 30 saves as the New York Islanders defeated the New Jersey Devils 5-1 on Monday night at UBS Arena.
With the two vital points, the Islanders (38-28-9, 85 points) extend their lead for the No. 1 Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference to three points ahead of the idle Pittsburgh Penguins, who now have two games in hand. They did receive a boost from the Ottawa Senators, who defeated the trailing Florida Panthers to open up a six-point cushion between the Islanders and the drop out of the playoff picture with seven games remaining in the regular season.
For Palmieri, he remains red-hot when needed the most as his three-point night ups his total to 10 over his last six games.
“It feels feels good to contribute that way,” Palmieri said. “I struggled a bit with staying healthy, which I’m fortunate I feel good now and everything’s cleared up. So right now, our line [Palmieri, Pierre Engvall, and Brock Nelson] as a whole and our team is playing well. And we just got to keep that going.”
As for the Devils (46-20-8), it’s the first time this season that they lost a game by four goals as they continue to chase the Carolina Hurricanes for the Metropolitan Division lead.
The Islanders grabbed the lead 7:37 into the first period when Pierre Engvall tapped in an easy rebound left by goalie Vitek Vanecek after turning away a Palmieri breakaway chance. The former Devil shrugged off a check by Ryan Graves on a strong turn into the New Jersey zone to get in alone on Vanecek. He went to the backhand but was stopped by the goalie’s pads, but the puck lay wide-open in the crease for the on-rushing Engvall.
It was Engvall’s fourth goal in his 11th game with the Islanders after being traded from the Toronto Maple Leafs last month, bringing his season total up to a career-high 16.
“He’s understanding how we play as opposed to his former team,” Islanders head coach Lane Lambert said. “There’s some differences and so, instead of maybe having to think, it’s more reactionary now for him and that’s when he’s at his best because he has that speed.”
Erik Haula provided a shorthanded equalizer for the Devils 5:16 into the second period when he picked off a Brock Nelson pass up the left boards of the New Jersey zone intended for Noah Dobson and on the breakaway slotted home a backhander under Sorokin.
The Devils’ breakthrough came just seconds after Anders Lee deflected a shot from Dobson off the post, which was the second of three pipes hit by the Islanders in the opening two periods.
Palmieri picked up his second point of the night and gave the Islanders the lead with 5:39 to go in the frame when — after a meandering skate saw him slow down a potential odd-man rush and circle around the Devils’ net — lift a backhander over Vanecek for his 14th goal of the season.
“It was a long time to have the puck on my backhand was what I was thinking,” Palmieri said. “I wanted Pierre right away but they came through the slot. For some reason, it was still on my backhand, and I found some space.”
Tomas Tatar had a second Devils equalizer waived off with 11:09 to go in the third period when it was deemed his putback off a Sorokin rebound was illegally kicked into the net.
“They said it was kicked in,” Devils head coach Lindy Ruff said. “I don’t believe it [was]. Tomas said he didn’t even see it. He was just hitting the brakes going to the goal. So that’s a determination the league makes. There’s nothing I can do.
“It’s no use complaining about it, but I think if you look at some of the goals that they’ve allowed this year, I think that fits that category.”
The high-powered visitors continued to press, outshooting the Islanders 13-8 in the third period, but Sorokin was his usual Vezina-caliber self, keeping the Metropolitan Division challenging Devils at bay.
Palmieri rewarded his netminder by putting the game away for the Islanders, pouncing on a Devils turnover and sniping a wrister with 4:35 to go.
For good measure, Bo Horvat provided the exclamation point with an empty-netter with 1:02 remaining thanks to a selfless helper from Casey Cizikas coming down the left wing. The goal snapped an 11-game goal drought for Horvat, who picked up his 37th of the season.
As the clock expired, Zach Parise snuck in his 21st goal of the season on a shorthanded empty-netter.
“There’s a certain style that we play,” Parise said of his side’s big win. “When we play that way, we’re pretty good.”