ELMONT — In theory, it was a game the Islanders had no business winning — but the shop doors of the team’s 2022-23 season managed to remain cracked open ever so slightly for just a bit longer.
Overcoming a 4-2 second-period deficit, the Islanders (28-23-7) scored three unanswered goals to defeat the Pittsburgh Penguins — a team they were trailing by two points for the final Eastern Conference Wild Card spot while playing four more games — 5-4 on Thursday night at UBS Arena to snap a three-game skid.
In his 1,200th career game, becoming just the 12th active skater to hit that mark, Zach Parise scored the game-winner with 2:43 remaining in regulation when his diving effort got the slightest piece of a Brock Nelson centering feed that was deflected toward Casey DeSmith’s goal mostly by Penguins forward Bryan Rust.
“Yeah, I mean, we got teams that are climbing behind us with games in hand,” Parise said on whether he thought this was a season-saving victory. “We got teams we’re trying to catch. There’s just not a lot of room for error for us. So right now, huge, huge.”
While his game-winner was initially awarded to Nelson for what would have been the fifth hat trick of his career, Parise’s smallest glance allowed him to be the hero of the night.
“Always,” he joked when asked whether or not he got a piece of Nelson’s pass.
Nelson still had a big night with three points to extend the NHL’s top current point streak to 12. He and Anders Lee each scored two goals apiece to keep the Islanders in it, somewhat remarkably given how they were dominated throughout the first two periods of the night. While they were outshot 44-28, the Penguins held a staggering 37-18 shot advantage after two periods.
For a team that is facing a must-win scenario every night they hit the ice, the Islanders initially lacked the desperation that they had talked about playing with. They were outshot 10-3 in the first 12 minutes of the game and found themselves trailing when Sidney Crosby pounded crashed the net and backhanded a loose puck laying just beneath the bottom of goaltender Ilya Sorokin, who made the initial save on a Pierre Olivier-Joseph shot from the point.
It seemed to kick the Islanders back into gear, momentarily at least, as the hosts found an equalizer just 1:56 later. Unaware of where the puck was when turning away a Lee redirection from a Mathew Barzal pass, DeSmith laid on his back in an attempt to cover the loose puck. The problem for him was that it was resting on the padding of his midsection (use your imagination) for Lee to tee off into the net.
The reward was quick for Lee, who was playing his first game on the Islanders’ first line alongside Barzal and Bo Horvat after head coach Lane Lambert was forced to shuffle his lines when Jean-Gabriel Pageau was placed on injured reserve.
“We worked off each other,” Lee said of the first line. “I think all three of us bring good qualities to the table. I thought we had a strong evening.”
That momentum built completely disappeared in the second period as the Penguins went to work dominating the Islanders in the second period — outshooting them 19-8 — yet somehow entered the third period with just a one-goal lead.
Pittsburgh posted the first seven shots over the first 3:53 of the frame, capped off by a Rakell redirection over Sorokin off a pass from Jake Guentzel. Just 1:42 later, Jason Zucker redirected an Olivier-Joseph shot just inside Sorokin’s right post, prompting Lambert to call a timeout.
“I thought we had way, way better [to give] and there was way more to be had from our guys,” Lambert said on calling the timeout. “That was basically the message.”
Parise went on to say the censored version of the message was to “wake up,” which worked.
Out of nothing, Nelson banked a wraparound attempt off the trailing leg of DeSmith and in to cut New York’s advantage to one with 5:34 remaining. But it was canceled out by Rakell’s second of the night with 1:03 to go when he coolly finished a close-range drop pass from Crosby amidst another New York defensive breakdown.
The Islanders wouldn’t go away, however. Lee picked up his second of the night with 27.1 to go in the second when he deflected a Barzal wrister home to keep the hosts within touching distance.
Nelson tied things up with 5:01 gone in the third and on the power play when he rifled a one-timer over the stick side of DeSmith and into the top corner of the goal.
“You’re kind of desperation mode, so to get through that and to mount that comeback is really, really terrific for our guys,” Lambert said. “We’ve talked very often about the fact that we need victories, so it’s a big one for us.”
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