PHILADELPHIA — It doesn’t matter how many trades the Islanders make if they can’t validate their general manager on the ice.
Monday was just the first game in a contract that will now run eight seasons for Bo Horvat. But with the Islanders returning from the All-Star break to find themselves hanging onto playoff hopes, it was a big moment for the team, not just the new guy. Commensurate with that, the Islanders played with verve, beating the Flyers 2-1 in a commanding victory at Wells Fargo Center to extend their winning streak to three games and draw even on points with the Penguins for the last wild-card spot.
With the Penguins holding four games in hand, it might be the Capitals, who have also played 53 times and have a three-point edge on the Islanders, who the Isles are really chasing. But regardless, getting a win here was imperative for a team that came back from the break in a good mood despite a rough January thanks to the combination of winning their last two games before All-Star and trading for Horvat.
That good feeling could have dissipated quickly with a loss to the Flyers. Instead, it rolls on to Tuesday when the Kraken visit Long Island. And just as important as the win itself was that the Islanders played a game that deserved two points.
Going into the third period with a 2-1 lead, the Islanders leaned on their defense. Semyon Varlamov, who finished with 25 stops, made a big one to stone Scott Laughton with a glove save off a breakaway early in the period. Then the Islanders snuffed out a Flyers power play after Kyle Palmieri was called for slashing at 7:55, stopping them from getting a shot at all during the two-minute stretch.
They closed it out in classic Islanders fashion, hanging on tight but rarely letting Varlamov take serious fire.
The Islanders had the game well under control early on, as Mathew Barzal’s goal from Noah Dobson’s feed 8:08 into the second handed them a 2-0 lead. But the Flyers would stay within arm’s length, as Nicolas Deslauriers tipped Tony DeAngelo’s shot past Semyon Varlamov just a couple minutes after Barzal’s goal.
Kyle Palmieri broke a teamwide 0-for-26 streak on the power play, going top shelf from the left circle 17:07 into a dominant first period to put the Islanders up 1-0. That was one monkey off this team’s back. The other — the lack of a secure spot in the playoffs — will take longer to shake.
Still, whatever the bar for Horvat’s debut was, the Islanders cleared it. They played a more offensive game. The top line had a solid night, with Horvat and Mathew Barzal connecting for a few chances. They got two points.
It wasn’t quite the completely tilted game it looked to be after 20 minutes, but they rarely are. The Islanders still controlled play for long stretches, possessed the puck and had a few decent shifts on the power play, though entering the zone at five-on-four still looks like an issue.
It is one game, and there are no grand conclusions to be drawn until Horvat has played much more than that.
But Monday was exactly what the Islanders needed it to be.