ELMONT — Even when they’re served an extra heaping of adversity, the New York Islanders find a way. And they did so in style on Tuesday night.
Despite losing 30-goal-scorer Brock Nelson to an apparent upper-body injury in the first period, the Islanders tied a season-high for goals with a 7-2 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs at UBS Arena behind a pair of goals from Cal Clutterbuck, who recorded his first-career three-point night while playing in just his fifth game back from a lengthy stint on injured reserve that kept him out for nearly two months.
“It’s hard to score when you’re not playing so, listen, I play the game a certain way. I do things that don’t always involve scoring goals,” Clutterbuck said. “I also feel like I have the ability to do it when I have the chance. I missed a couple chances in San Jose and was frustrated by that, but I stuck with it. Just like bury it when I get my chances.”
The victory extended the Islanders’ (37-27-8, 82 points) lead for the No. 1 Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference to three points after the Florida Panthers (79 points) lost to the Philadelphia Flyers earlier on Thursday night. Florida still has one game in hand on the Islanders. It also puts them at 10 games over .500 for the first time this season.
After yielding the opening goal of the night, the Islanders outscored Toronto 7-1 in the final two periods, though netminder Ilya Sorokin deserves plenty of credit for keeping his side in it long enough to find the necessary gear to pull away. The star goalie made 23 saves on the night, including two highlight-reel-worthy stops that helped provide a missing spark for his side.
“[He was] game-changing,” Zach Parise, who scored his 19th goal of the season in the win, said of Sorokin’s performance. “Not only are they great saves, but they’re always timely.
After Sam Lafferty put the Leafs up 1-0 11:01 into the game, the visitors very well should have doubled their advantage two minutes later when defenseman Erik Gustafsson was found down low wide-open at the right post with Sorokin at the top of his crease on the opposite side. Gustafsson made good enough contact with the one-timer to send it toward the gaping net, but Sorokin lunged with the paddle and somehow kept it out to add another super-human save to his growing gallery.
“It was just ridiculous,” Anders Lee, who scored the Islanders’ seventh and final goal of the night, said. “It wakes up everyone on the bench. I think that turned the tide a little bit there. We needed that.”
But first they had to deal with the loss of Nelson with 1:12 to go in the first when he was hit from behind into the boards by Noel Acciari — a boarding penalty that went uncalled. The referees did, however, call a trip on New York defenseman Alex Romanov for tripping Mitch Marner.
Toronto’s man advantage didn’t last long, though, as Auston Matthews was called for a hook on Zach Parise while he broke out of the Islanders’ zone shorthanded with 4.9 seconds to go in the frame.
With 4-on-4 play carrying into the second, the Islanders drew even when Scott Mayfield circled the Toronto net and found an open Parise for an easy finish 28 seconds in. It was the veteran winger’s third goal in as many games.
Lafferty gave the Islanders a power-play opportunity four minutes later, but the Leafs had the best chance of the two minutes when David Kampf poked a wobbling puck from the feet of Noah Dobson at the Toronto blue line and had only Sorokin in front of him. The New York goalie once again came up big staying with Kampf as he attempted to deke to his backhand at Sorokin’s right post.
“He made some huge saves when we needed him to,” Islanders head coach Lane Lambert said.
Despite the Maple Leafs largely dominating the second period, it was the Islanders who found a pair late in the frame.
Hudson Fasching pounced on a whiffed turnover by Liljegren on the right wing of the Toronto zone and sniped a wrister through a Parise screen and into the top-left corner of Ilya Samsonov’s goal with 6:10 to go in the frame. Clutterbuck made it 3-1 with 2:34 left in the period when, from between the dots, he deflected a Ryan Pulock point shot over the Toronto goalie for his first goal since Jan. 5 — a wait exacerbated by a lengthy IR stint.
Marner brought the Leafs back within one 3:29 into the third period when his one-timer beat the arm of Sorokin, who couldn’t get back to his right post in time.
Clutterbuck came up with an immediate answer — just 44 seconds later — when he picked off a pass at the Islanders’ blue line, went in alone on Samsonov, and sent a perfectly-placed wrister over the blocker side and in.
“It was just an awesome night for him and I’m really happy for him,” Lee said of Clutterbuck. “I see [that wrist shot] every day in practice so I don’t forget that. We’ve seen him do that plenty throughout the year so great to see him get his break and then put that up top.”
Simon Holmstrom got in on the fun at the 10-minute mark when he jammed home a loose puck amidst a scrum in front before Noah Dobson slotted home a long-range empty-netter for the Islanders’ sixth. Lee picked up his fifth goal in his last eight games with a deflection off a Dobson shot with 3:14 to go in the game.
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