COLUMBUS, Ohio — After four consecutive games of the goaltender getting shelled, the Islanders needed a return to fundamentals every bit as much as they needed a second straight win Saturday night.
And a return to fundamentals is exactly what they got at Nationwide Arena, putting together a rock-solid, defense-first 2-0 win over the Blue Jackets, marking the first shutout of the year for Semyon Varlamov, who finished with 34 saves.
Even in beating Ottawa on Thursday in a game that required 45 saves from Ilya Sorokin, the Islanders were playing with fire.
It looked a little too much like Doug Weight’s teams for comfort, even if it was a win.
This, however, was the hockey the Islanders played to catapult themselves into being contenders under Barry Trotz and to make the playoffs last year under Lane Lambert: clogging lanes, getting in front of shots, playing structured in the defensive zone.
Maddening? Boring? Maybe. But you bet it got them two points.
“I thought we battled really hard,” Lambert said. “And there was moments when we needed certain situations defensively. I thought our guys did a great job of battling. There were some close calls, but that’s the way hockey is.”
The only point of issue would be that the game was closer than it needed to be, a product of the Islanders failing to put the game away until late.
That allowed the Blue Jackets to enter the third with a mere 1-0 deficit to make up.
Their best chance to do so came when Kyle Palmieri was called for hooking 7:22 into the third.
But, with some help from the post and Varlamov alike, the Islanders killed it off.
And with 3:21 to go, Matt Martin sealed the win, cleaning up the garbage on Casey Cizikas’ shot.
“I think [the structure] was huge,” Palmieri said. “There’s a lot of pucks bouncing and rimming around the boards, so it was a lot of up and down. It wasn’t really run and gun — at the same time, it was coming into our D-zone and stuff we’ve talked about, made sure we’d been trying to get better at every day. Tonight we did a good job.”
Palmieri had opened the scoring 15:45 into the first by potting a rebound after Pierre Engvall harmlessly threw the puck at the net.
That eventually became the game-winner on a night when Varlamov was not under the sort of barrage that both netminders had faced in the four games leading into Saturday — a positive step for a defense that has been taxed without the injured Scott Mayfield.
“I think tonight we did the best we could to keep them to the outside and limit their high-danger chances,” captain Anders Lee said. “Skilled team, so they’re still gonna get some. But Varly had a phenomenal game and was big in our big moments.”
The defensive issues were the reason a solid start to the season for the Islanders, now 4-2-1, had felt a little bit more shaky than the record indicates.
A home win against Arizona was the only game in which they’d made the goaltender’s life easy.
This one does not go quite into the same category, but few will — the Coyotes, after all, were limited to fewer than 20 shots.
But it was a clean win on both sides of the puck, one in which the Islanders were not putting two points on the shoulder of the goalie.
“I thought we were better tonight when we did get the puck as far as breaking pucks out cleanly,” Palmieri said. “And carrying it through the neutral zone, whether it was trying to get it deep and get on our forecheck or an odd-man rush going the other way. So I think we were cleaner when we did get the puck and making plays coming out of our zone.”
An on-brand win for a team that had been playing off-brand hockey.
“We need to be able to win those,” Palmieri said. “Especially on the road. I think everyone from top to bottom contributed. We grinded it out.”