For once, a night that started with an announcement about COVID-19 ended well for the Islanders.
After an 11-day layoff and a pregame announcement that four players were coming off the COVID list, one was going on the list and another was being placed on IR, for a total of six regulars missing (a contemporary word problem if there ever was one) the Islanders … won? Yes, won.
Kieffer Bellows sparked a two-goal second period and the Islanders disposed of the shorthanded Sabres, 4-1, Friday night at UBS Arena to improve to 9-12-6 and end 2021 on the sort of high note that has been missing all too often of late.
“It’s just nice to get back on track right away,” Mathew Barzal said, “and we obviously know we need to have a real strong second half.”
The rosters were reflective of the NHL’s current reality. The Islanders were down six regulars, while the Sabres were missing 10 players and their coach, Don Granato, between injuries and COVID. But the Islanders did have Bellows, who played unlikely hero with a goal and assist as his team built a controlling 3-1 lead.
Bellows, who has been thrust into a regular second-line spot thanks to the rotating cast of absences, might warrant discussion about whether he should stick around even once the Islanders finally get healthy.
He played on Thursday with jump in a game that didn’t have much jump. At 6:45 in the second period, Bellows took the puck himself, stickhandling through three defenders before letting loose a laser past Malcolm Subban to put the Islanders up, 2-1. That was not the sort of play that Bellows, a grinder who came into Thursday averaging 11:02 of ice time per night, is supposed to make.
Bellows the playmaker showed up again later in the second. With the Islanders on the power play, Bellows’ pass inside resulted in a loose puck in the crease. Anders Lee pirouetted and slapped a backhand shot into the net.
“I’m feeling confident in my game right now,” Bellows said. “I’m feeling good out there. More patient with the puck just having that extra split second to make choices out there.”
The Islanders have gotten next to no production from the wing all year. Kyle Palmieri, Zach Parise, Anthony Beauvillier and Josh Bailey have all suffered dry spells. Islanders coach Barry Trotz suggested after the game that Palmieri could lose playing time upon his return from IR. Bellows isn’t meant to be the guy who makes up for his teammates’ shortcomings. But on Thursday, he was.
And Trotz noted afterwards that he is making a strong case for more playing time.
“I think Kieffer has been on a slow and steady burn where he’s taken on the challenges that we’ve given him,” Trotz said. “He’s playing with some urgency. We need people to step up when other people have been out and he’s doing that.”
Noah Dobson sealed the win with a slap shot through the five-hole with 8:17 left in the third.
The Islanders played the early part of the game in the offensive zone, displaying an air of control despite being outshot 13-9 in the first period. Barzal opened the scoring with a wrist shot past Subban at 12:36 in the first, courtesy of some fine passing on the rush from Dobson and Josh Bailey.
Buffalo’s Kyle Okposo tied the score 1-1 later in the period, scoring on a power play after Semyon Varlamov left a rebound free around the net. That was Varlamov’s lone error on a night in which he stopped 36 shots.
It’s easy to overlook, at a time when the mere playing of games is a bigger story than the games themselves, that the Islanders have themselves a three-game point streak and some confidence to go with it. They played Thursday with an understated discipline — mistake-free and smart. Barzal, who finished with a goal and eight shots on net, has a seven-game point streak and looks like his old self again.
“I wanted to just, early on, make them respect me a little bit out there,” Barzal said. “Early on you get some shots, you just feel aggressive. Just kept it through the full 60.”
The Islanders somehow are still not healthy, but no longer are they playing like a decimated team. These results had been coming. In December, the Islanders got at least a point in eight of 10 games.
It would be better if they had gotten two points in more than four of them. But that makes for an easy new year’s resolution.
“Tough to say one thing [that’s different], but you want to get that first win at home,” Dobson said. “Ever since then, we build off that each night.”