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Taub: Counting Down the 10 Most Memorable Games of the 2018-19 Season

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It’s been a week now since the New York Islanders season came to an end.

The feeling of the sweep at the hands of the Hurricanes still feels very fresh. But in the past seven days, there’s been a lot of time for reflection for just how unprecedented and enjoyable this year was for the fans, players, coaches and management.

Closeout day with the players and coaches on Monday saw a lot of quotes about how much they loved the season they just had. End of the year videos and website posts that summed up what the team accomplished after they were given no chance back before the season started. And the g.m. Lou Lamoriello himself duly noted how much he enjoyed watching the group he assembled come together as one.

The fans and the players are already counting down the days to the draft, free agency, and when the calendar flips to early September. Who can blame them? This season — and several of the games that will be featured below — brought back the pride and respect that had been lost for a long time for anybody who wore or was affiliated with the Islander crest.

Some may agree or disagree with some of the games mentioned, but one thing everyone could say about each of the ten games: they’ll remember them for a long time.

10. Robin Lehner’s first start and win.

https://www.nhl.com/islanders/video/lehners-ninth-career-shutout/t-277437420/c-61704403

Everyone became aware of newcomer Robin Lehner’s story in training camp when he revealed before signing with the Isles that he dealt with addiction and mental health issues. Lehner’s teammates and the fans would come to embrace the 27-year-old and his fight, all culminating with his first start as an Islander on Columbus Day against the San Jose Sharks at Barclays Center.

In a spectacular effort, Lehner stopped all 35 Sharks shots and earned the shutout in a 4-0 win. Lehner’s performance earned him his first win in an Islander sweater and his team their first victory of the year on home ice. The shutout also was the first of he and Thomas Greiss’ combined 11 shutouts in the regular season.

Why it was memorable: That afternoon provided the first glance of how much Lehner would become adored by the fanbase and how much his journey resonated with many who follow the team.

9 and 8. Home and home sweep of Pitt.

As the Islanders began to find their footing under new bench boss Barry Trotz, they were tasked with a home-and-home to end October and start the month of November. Their opponent: the Pittsburgh Penguins. Mind you, the Isles had all types of difficulty with the Pens in recent years and last season. So, this situation made for an excellent early season test. Add in the Isles had just swept a back-to-back weekend in Philadelphia and Carolina, and the stakes were raised just a tad more.

In the first game in the Steel City, the Isles got off to a rip-roaring start going up 2-0 on goals from Andrew Ladd and Brock Nelson. Pittsburgh answered right back with two goals in under four minutes. Following that outburst, Trotz’ skaters settled in and pumped three goals past Matt Murray and his replacement Casey DeSmith for a 5-2 lead after two periods. Flexing their new defensive muscles in the third, the Isles shut down the Pens high-octane attack. To cap the night, former Penguin Tom Kuhnhackl, ice the game just past the midpoint of the third with his team’s sixth and final goal of the contest in a 6-3 drubbing.

Two nights later in Brooklyn, many expected Pittsburgh to return the favor. Instead, the Isles and those same Penguins duked it out in what had the feel of a playoff-esque affair. The teams would combine for 54 shots through 60 minutes but were squared at two as the game entered overtime. With under two minutes left in the extra session, Pens forward Sidney Crosby was in all alone on Thomas Greiss. Greiss, shades of Wade Dubielewicz in 2007, came out to challenge the future Hall of Famer and made a diving poke check to knock the puck off his stick to the roar of the Isles faithful inside Barclays Center. The contest would go to a shootout where Greiss starred again denying Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang for a big 3-2 win.

Why it was memorable: The back-to-back victories unexpectedly gave the Isles a share of first place in the Metropolitan Division. Aside from that, those wins showed the Isles were not to be taken lightly.

7. Black Friday turns into Barzy Friday.

Just past the first quarter of the year, the Islanders faced their first bit of adversity as they headed into Newark for a late holiday afternoon showdown with the Devils. In the two games before this contest, Mathew Barzal and Co. had played arguably their two worst games of the season — a 6-2 beating at home to the Dallas Stars and 5-0 blowout loss at Madison Square Garden to the Rangers on Thanksgiving Eve.

This game turned into a back and forth tilt that featured the classic Nick Leddy full-length rush from end to end, MVP Taylor Hall’s brilliance, and not shockingly, the Isles blowing a one-goal lead with 1:11 left in regulation. Already with a point stored away, the Islanders desperately needed the second point. Enter the reigning Calder winner stage right. Just 1:20 into OT, a turnover by the Devils Kyle Palmieri as he nearly entered the Isles zone left the puck at Brock Nelson’s feet and with Barzal off to the races. Barzal, after he got the first step on Devs d-man Damon Severson and flew by him, threw a shot at Keith Kinkaid, only to get his own rebound and give the Islanders a crucial 4-3 win.

Barzal’s emphatic celebration — the now notorious fist-pump — exhibited how big a moment this was for him and his teammates.

Why it was memorable: Looking back at that win, it was one of those games that if they lost the Islanders could have broke and gone into a tailspin. They bent, but still found a way.

6. For the Captain in Detroit.

In early December, the Islanders were really beginning to find their stride under Trotz’ new defensive structure. It almost all went for naught as they were blasted 6-2 in Pittsburgh on December 6. Two nights later in Detroit, Trotz’ crew was faced with another challenge — fighting back for their captain. Falling behind 2-0 in the first, captain Anders Lee took a ferocious hit from Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall that left him lying bloodied on the ice. Lee’s linemate, Josh Bailey, saw this and decided to drop the gloves, a very rare sight. Dropping the gloves though, Bailey sparked the rest of the team and an impressive comeback.

Casey Cizikas got the Islanders on the board early in the second. 2:26 later, Ryan Pulock ripped home a rare power play goal for the equalizer. With the game tied early in the third, Matt Martin — who grew up in Windsor, Canada, not far from Detroit — scored the game-winning goal in what became another comeback victory.

Why it was memorable: That win represented that this was a resilient group and a team that played for one another. And when their leader goes down, they would continue to fight.

5. A Thunderous Occasion.

The Tampa Bay Lightning were head and shoulders above the rest of the league as the Isles welcomed them for a Sunday night affair in Brooklyn. Jon Cooper’s Bolts were in the midst of a 10-1-0 stretch and we’re coming off a 5-3 win in Buffalo one night earlier. The Isles, who also played one day earlier, had experienced a tough 2-1 defeat to the New York Rangers.

This matchup was also interesting, as it matched up two of the best teams in the East. Well, much of that intrigue was put to rest early.

The Islanders — getting the few extra hours rest from the day prior — shot out of a cannon scoring three goals in the first five minutes of the game to go up 3-0. They would get another in the second period to make it 4-0 off the stick of Casey Cizikas before Tampa made it 4-1. After those two goals, the Isles held down the fort allowing the Lightning to not inch any closer despite allowing 32 shots. Josh Bailey put the game away with an empty netter with 52 seconds to go, giving his team an extremely satisfying 5-1 victory.

Why it was memorable: The Lightning were steamrolling everyone in their path at this point of the year. The Islanders were not intimidated though and broke their armor and put them away early. No one saw that coming.

4. Happy Homecoming.

From mid-December through mid-January, Barry Trotz had his club playing their most complete hockey all year long. One game marked heavily that month was January 18th: Trotz’s return to Washington. Trotz and Co. had already met his former team two months earlier — the Islanders lost 4-1, but the game was closer than the optics would say. Coming off that defeat — add in the heightened atmosphere surrounding Trotz’ return, a chance for the Islanders to take sole possession of first place in the Metro, and it was the second end of a back-to-back — this game had a statement feel to it. And what did the Islanders do? They made a statement.

Getting past all the tribute videos and recognition for their head coach, the Isles got key goals from Josh Bailey and Cal Clutterbuck early in the third on their way to a 2-0 win. Thomas Greiss earned another shutout and was stellar having to only stop 19 shots, while the defense in front of him put on a dominant performance.

Why it was memorable: Other than the fact that it gave the Islanders first place, this night was for Trotz and how much he had turned the franchise around in such a short period.

3. Torching Toronto.

The noise and the drama were reaching a fever pitch as the Islanders were set to take on their former Captain John Tavares late in December. 24 hours earlier, led by Mathew Barzal, the Isles came back from down 2-0 and 3-1 to beat the Ottawa Senators 6-3. After the game when asked about Tavares, Barry Trotz ushered a challenge to his group to take his departure personally when they stepped on the ice the next night. Safe to say they took it personally and didn’t let their old captain forget it.

From the puck drop, the Islanders put on a masterful performance in all three fazes. Barzal — who was red-hot — shined on the brightest stage, notching a hat trick in the second period on his team’s path to a 4-0 shellacking. Two former Leafs, Matt Martin and Leo Komarov, also got a taste of redemption as they played outstanding.

Why it was memorable: This game showed the Islanders were for real and that they deserved respect. Also, all the images of Tavares looking dumbfounded on the bench will be etched into Isles fans memories for quite some time.

2. Home Sweet Home.

There was no bigger anticipated moment than when the Islanders were ready to return to the Nassau Coliseum on December 1. Throughout the week, the buzz was building for that momentous Saturday night, even after the team dropped a heartbreaker in Boston a few nights earlier. That day really felt like the fans and franchise were back where they belonged. The game itself played out to almost a perfect script.

Going down 2-0 early in the second, captain Anders Lee got the Isles back within one after a lengthy review that saw the fans almost bring the roof down when the goal stood. A few minutes later, the building almost collapsed when Anthony Beauvillier tied the game, setting up a frantic rest of the period. In the final frame, just as they did so many times during the year, the Islanders found the go-ahead goal. This time it was who else, Casey Cizikas. As the Coliseum shook to its core and the clock winded down, the fans continued to get louder and louder, pushing the Isles to a 3-2 victory.

Why it was memorable: Out of all the nights during this wonderful season, many will tell you this one was the most special of all. Everything from the pregame tailgates, to the rousing ovations before warmups and when the Isles took the ice, all the way to the final buzzer, was perfect. The Islanders were finally home.

1. The Snake Gets Slithered. 

What will go down not only as the most memorable game of the Islanders season, but probably the most highly-anticipated regular season game maybe in the history of the franchise, the night John Tavares returned was nothing anybody could have foreseen. Hostile, crazy, jubilant, cathartic are just some of the words to describe what that evening was like inside the walls of Nassau Coliseum. The game itself felt like it took on a Broadway play of sorts.

A feverish first period filled with relentless chants followed into the second stanza that only made for an even more jacked up atmosphere. With the game tied at one, it was only right that Anders Lee found a loose puck to put the Isles ahead with what would turn out to be the game-winning goal. Once the Leafs had the tying goal called back for offside, the Coliseum crowd went into a frenzy only to have more bedlam as the Islanders just went full throttle the rest of the second ending with the score 4-1 after 40 minutes. In the third — as the team just poured it on — the fans didn’t stop in their assault of Tavares.

Once the buzzer sounded, the scoreboard read 6-1 Islanders. Just an unbelievable night with one of the wildest crowds ever inside the Coliseum.

Why it was memorable: Other than the Islanders returning a few months earlier, this night defined what a wild ride of a season the Islanders had taken their fans on. That evening was everything to so many people.

BONUS*:

1A. The Playoffs Return to the Barn.

Very little needs to be said about when the Islanders stepped on to the ice at Nassau Coliseum to start the postseason. It was 31 years in the making and it lived up to all the expectations. The Isles faithful were out in full force from start to finish, the game was up, down and had all the emotions of what the playoffs were all about, and the epic finish by Josh Bailey off a wondrous effort from Mathew Barzal just was the icing on the cake.

Why it was memorable: Before being swept by Carolina in round two, the first playoff game in three years — and it being on Long Island — was indescribable to many.  The passion, the pride, the underdog mentality reigned supremely from start to finish, and it never wavered. Not one bit.

Follow me on Twitter @RTaub_

 

 

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