When the Islanders flip the page to 2023, they’ll do so with all their pre-Christmas struggles behind them.
The Islanders rolled in their last game of the calendar year, easily dispatching the last-place Blue Jackets, 2-1, at UBS Arena on Thursday night. They’ll head west for a four-game trip starting on New Year’s Day with a three-game winning streak intact and a spot in the standings just above the playoff cutline. All of two points currently separate second place from sixth in the Metropolitan Division standings, but the picture tilted in the Islanders’ favor after the Rangers dropped a shootout loss to Tampa Bay on Thursday.
Since the month of December was jam-packed with injuries and more than a few disappointing losses, that’s a pretty good way to round things off.
After a quiet first period, Jean-Gabriel Pageau got the Islanders on the board at 7:12 of the second, cleaning up the garbage on a rebound from Hudson Fasching. Pageau made a nice play with his stick to steal the puck from Adam Boqvist on the far blue line and Fasching, replicating his goal against Vegas on Dec. 17, drove to the net with force to set up the rebound.
It was fitting that Fasching helped create the goal — not just because his play has likely earned him a permanent spot on the roster, but because with his 10th game for the Islanders, the 27-year-old is no longer exempt from waivers. This was another reminder of why the Islanders probably can’t afford to subject him to a potential claim.
Even better, though, was Mathew Barzal’s one-timer at 16:39 of the second to make it 2-0. Not for the goal, Barzal’s eighth of the season, but for what it represented: snapping an 0-for-27 streak on the power play over which the team’s five-on-four game had been nothing more than abysmal. One goal won’t solve all their power-play issues, but it’s a start — and one the Islanders desperately needed.
That second period was sandwiched by a quiet first and a third in which the game was effectively killed out. The only blemish was a six-on-five Columbus goal with 20.5 seconds to go, with Marcus Bjork’s shot going off Emil Bemstrom’s chest and in. This performance wasn’t emphatic, but it was ruthlessly effective, and they all count for the same two points.
On a semi-consistent basis this season, and particularly over the past month, the Islanders have made a bad habit of playing down to their opposition. That has resulted in two losses to the Coyotes, two to the Predators and one in Philadelphia. There was no such issue on Thursday, though, against a terrible Blue Jackets team.
The Islanders (21-14-2) need every point they can get within the Metropolitan Division, and this was their third victory in three tries against Columbus. Thursday was not quite so emphatic as the 5-1 thrashing of the Penguins two nights prior, but the Islanders controlled the game throughout. The shot margin was lopsided in their favor all night, and Columbus rarely challenged Ilya Sorokin in serious fashion at five-on-five.
The Islanders are still missing six regulars with injuries, and it’s not clear when any of them will return to the lineup. They have refused to let that be a reason to roll over.
Instead, they are marching into next year with a playoff spot in hand and heads held high.