Thursday night's game against Washington had all the makings of a letdown. The Islanders were coming off a hard-fought, last-second win against the Penguins. They had to travel to the nation's capital. Thomas Greiss, who has emerged as the team's number one goaltender, wasn't even dressed.
They had skated hard and played an impressive two periods against the Capitals. But we were all bracing for the inevitable in a scoreless third period, and it came just 37 seconds in: the power play opportunity that would inevitably break New York's back.
After the Isles had killed off their first four chances down a man, two of which came late in the second period, Johnny Boychuk swatted a puck in the air out of play without it touching the glass. The delay of game minor gave Washington another shot on the power play just 29 seconds after Anders Lee's high-sticking penalty had expired, and the Caps were starting to buzz.
Washington hadn't converted on their last eight power plays, and they knew it. They were due, and smelled blood in the water. The way this season had gone, it was only a matter of time before the Capitals set up Alexander Ovechkin for one of his patented blasts from the circle that beat Jaroslav Halak and broke the tie.
But something funny happened. The dam held. Oh, Ovechkin still got his chances. In fact, the Capitals' captain took three separate drives from his home in the circle, none of which found a home in the back of the net. Halak did get some help from the post on one, but otherwise, it was all him. He was incredibly aggressive, at one point coming out past the crease to challenge Ovechkin and cut down his angle. It was the perfect time for Halak to be the Isles' best penalty killer, and it turned the momentum of the game on its head.
"Earlier in the year, [our goaltenders] were struggling, and if you look around the league, the teams that are winning are getting real good goaltending," head Jack Capuano told reporters after the game. "Overall tonight, I thought we played real well, and Jaro made some big saves."
38 seconds after the penalty expired, Lars Eller misplayed the puck at the point, and it eventually sprung Shane Prince, who rifled a wrister past Braden Holtby on the glove side. Three-and-a-half minutes later, it was Brock Nelson finishing off some great work by John Tavares and Josh Bailey. The Isles were on their way, and iced it when Jason Chimera beat his old teammate. Had it not been for the work of the penalty killers and Halak, it wouldn't have been possible.
It's all part of a sudden renaissance from the PK. In the last nine games, the Isles' kill is 28-for-30 (93.3 percent), and has succeeded in 14 consecutive chances. The eight games prior: 16-for-26 (61.5 percent). For all the issues the Islanders seemingly have, if the penalty kill can be as sturdy as its been of late, it can really act as an equalizer.
The Isles went 2-4-2 in those eight games where the PK was abysmal, and that included three one-goal decisions (two of which were shootout losses). Those close defeats could easily turn into games where the team can snag some extra points, all of which will be at a premium after the Isles put themselves in this early-season hole.
So credit Halak for coming up big when he was called up, and the forwards for being aggressive all night long, even with two-and-three-goal leads. But for me, Thursday was a special teams success story, and if New York can keep executing like this, the season may still be salvageable.