Brock Nelson scored with just under seven minutes left and Semyon Varlamov made 29 saves as the New York Islanders edged Washington 1-0 on Tuesday night to pull even with the Capitals for first place in the East Division.
Varlamov and Vitek Vanecek matched each other save for save for more than 50 minutes before Nelson scored his team-leading 14th goal assisted by defenseman Ryan Pulock at 13:05 of the third period.
Varlamov earned his fourth shutout this season and the 31st of his career. It was the first time he blanked his former Capitals team in a regular-season game. The 32-year-old goalie improved to 16-7-3 this season, his second with the Islanders.
“When it’s 1-0 the thought is coming — maybe you are going to get that shutout,” Varlamov said. “I try not to think about it, stay focused and make another save.”
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New York improved to 16-1-2 at Nassau Coliseum, remaining the only team in the NHL with just one regulation loss at home.
The Islanders are 11-4-4 in games decided by a single goal, including a 6-4 record in regulation. Winning close games has become a byproduct of the defense-first structure Barry Trotz has implemented since becoming coach just after he helped the Capitals win the Stanley Cup in 2018.
“I liked the way we managed the puck. I like the way we defended,” Trotz said. “Their goaltender played extremely well. We had chances to pull away and we didn’t. It was a hell of a hockey game.”
The game was much less chaotic than a meeting between the teams five days ago, when they combined for six goals in the first period and the Islanders won 8-4.
Washington was shut out for the first time this season.
“It was one of those tight games. They got one by and we weren’t able to,″ Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said.
The Islanders held a 12-7 shots advantage in the first period, but the Capitals reversed that number in the second. It was the third time this season the Islanders and their opponents were scoreless through two periods.
The third started with a more frenetic pace, with both teams trading chances before Nelson was finally able to put a shot past Vanecek, who finished with 38 saves. The Islanders fired 20 shots at Vanecek in the third.
Trotz praised his squad’s gritty effort.
“They have learned to manage the compete — really embrace the compete — because that is the fun part,” Trotz added. “These guys have done a really good job. Tonight was another good test against a really good team.”
The Capitals won the first three meetings this season at home, outscoring New York 12-6. The teams will play two more times on Long Island and once in Washington.
Washington concluded a five-game road trip with three losses, two against the Islanders and one against the Rangers. The Capitals return home to face Boston on Thursday before two games in Buffalo against the last-place Sabres.
“We had our chances and they just wouldn’t go in tonight,” Capitals defenseman Justin Schultz said. “Vitek kept us in it. We’ll learn from it and try to be better next time.”
The Islanders are 17-4-1 in their last 22 games and 22-6-4 in their past 32. They have outscored their opponents 46-25 in the third period and 72-38 at home overall. They continue their homestand Thursday against Philadelphia before two games at Nassau Coliseum against the rival Rangers.
“It’s about us taking the challenge in front of us,” forward Cal Clutterbuck said. “The mentality is to stay with what’s going on today. If we play well, we want to play well again.”
The Islanders have three players with active streaks of least 200 games: Brock Nelson (284), Mathew Barzal (271) and Ryan Pulock (234). All three have appeared in every game since Trotz became coach. Nelson is tied with Matt Moulson for fourth place in franchise history and 11 games from equaling captain Anders Lee, whose streak ended at 295 games on March 11 when he sustained a season-ending knee injury against the Devils.
TROTZ AGAINST THE CAPITALS
Since becoming coach of the Islanders before the 2018-19 season, Trotz is 6-7-0 in the regular season against the Capitals team he led to a Stanley Cup championship in 2018. Last Thursday’s win over Washington was the first in five tries at home against the Capitals over that span. The Islanders did defeat Washington in five games in last summer’s playoff bubble in Toronto.
Capitals: Host the Boston Bruins on Thursday.
Islanders: Host the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday.