The New York Islanders passed the Boston Bruins for the final wild-card berth in the Eastern Conference standings as they recorded a 4-3 shootout win over the Pittsburgh Penguins at PPG Paints Arena. File Photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo
PITTSBURGH -- The last time New York Islanders goaltender Jaroslav Halak appeared in an NHL game, his team was in next-to-last place in the Eastern Conference.
One day after he was recalled from a nearly three-month stretch in the American Hockey League, Halak was a big reason that the Islanders moved into playoff position on Friday night.
Playing at the NHL level for the first time since Dec. 29, Halak made 40 saves and led the Islanders to a 4-3 shootout win over the Pittsburgh Penguins at PPG Paints Arena.
The Islanders passed the Boston Bruins for the final wild-card berth in the Eastern Conference standings. Both teams have 82 points, but the Islanders (73) have played fewer games than the Bruins (74) heading into their game at the Barclays Center on Saturday.
"It feels great," said Halak, who finished with 40 saves. "Any time you win a game it always feels great, but I think it's more special right now after being called up and playing my first game in the late stages of the season. I'm happy that I'm back. I'm just going to try to help the guys win any games or get points when I play."
Since naming Doug Weight as interim coach on Jan. 17, the Islanders have surged to a 17-9-4 record.
"It just shows the character on our team," center Casey Cizikas said. "Don't quit. A scratch-and-claw mentality. We kind of turned things around. We made things clear. We're not out of this. Even when we were at the bottom, we were only eight or nine points out. We knew we had it in this room."
The Islanders nearly scored the opening goal in the final second of the first period.
After New York center Brock Nelson fired a wrister from the slot past the right skate of Marc-Andre Fleury, the Penguins issued a coach's challenge contending Islanders center Alan Quine interfered with the Pittsburgh goaltender on the edge of the crease. After a video review, officials overturned the score.
The Penguins opened the scoring less than two minutes into the second period. At 1:54, defenseman Cameron Gaunce settled the puck at the right point and wired a slapper through a screen past Halak's glove hand on the near side. It was Gaunce's first goal of the season.
The Islanders tied the score at 4:48. Taking a drop pass above the left circle from right winger Joshua Ho-Sang, Nelson used Penguins defenseman Mark Streit as a screen and ripped a wrister past Fleury's glove on the far side.
New York took a 2-1 lead at 10:42. Pushing the puck up the right wing, Bailey fed a pass to the slot, where left winger Anders Lee fired a wrister past Fleury's blocker on the near side. The Penguins issued another coach's challenge contending the Islanders were offside upon entering the offensive zone, but officials upheld the goal.
A goal by Crosby at 13:41 tied the score at 2. Off a cross-ice pass by left winger Conor Sheary, Crosby left a drop pass for defenseman Chad Ruhwedel above the right circle. Ruhwedel pumped a one-timer which was blocked by Islanders defenseman Calvin de Haan above the crease. Crosby followed on the rebound and lifted a wrister from the right circle past Halak's glove hand.
The Islanders claimed a 3-2 lead with five seconds remaining in the second period. Islanders captain John Tavares hounded Ruhwedel into a turnover in the Penguins' right circle and fed the puck into the slot past Penguins defenseman Ian Cole. Cizikas was able to tap the puck past Fleury's right skate.
"That one's on me," Gaunce said. "I just mismanaged the puck. I'd like to have that one back."
The Penguins forged a 3-3 tie at 13:50 of the third period. Gaunce pushed a puck from the right wing past Josh Bailey and attacked the net. After his shot was denied by Halak's right skate, center Matt Cullen lifted the rebound for a goal.
Center Anthony Beauvillier and Tavares scored in the shootout for New York. Crosby scored Pittsburgh's lone shootout goal. It was the Penguins' second shootout loss in as many days.
"We're not perfect by any stretch out there, but we're competing hard," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. "We're battling right down to the wire and I thought we did that again tonight. The last two nights for me have really two hard-fought points. We would have liked to have gotten the second point, but it didn't turn out that way."
-- During a radio interview with TSN 1200, Ottawa owner Eugene Melnyk referred to Penguins C Sidney Crosby as a "whiner beyond belief" after an unpenalized slash by Crosby injured a finger on the left hand of Senators D Marc Methot during Thursday's game. In response to Melnyk, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said, "We see it just the opposite."
-- Penguins LW Scott Wilson was scratched. Sullivan said Wilson has been battling an undisclosed injury "for a couple of weeks."
-- Penguins RW Bryan Rust returned to the lineup after being sidelined 19 games due to an undisclosed injury.
-- Penguins C Nick Bonino played in his 400th career game.
-- Islanders interim coach Doug Weight said RW Ryan Strome will be sidelined three to six weeks with a wrist injury. Strome was replaced in the lineup by C Alan Quine, who had been a healthy scratch for two games.