UNIONDALE, N.Y. — Once again, Jaroslav Halak has played a major role with the New York Islanders closing in on a playoff spot.
“(Halak) made a few big saves,” Islanders coach Jack Capuano said after the Islanders’ starting goaltender made 21 saves for his sixth shutout of the season to lead New York to a 3-0 win over the Buffalo Sabres on April 4.
Halak improved to 37-16-3 this season, and has the franchise’s single-season win record.
He was aided by goals from Kyle Okposo, Brock Nelson and Nikolay Kulemin. Kulemin’s goal, his 14th of the season, came in his 500th game.
Okposo opened the scoring at 6:37 of the first with a power-play goal from the left circle. New York’s right wing gathered John Tavares’ diagonal, cross-ice pass, then waited a moment before sending a shot past Sabres goaltender Andrey Makarov.
In his first NHL start, Makarov stopped 33 of 36 shots for Buffalo. The Sabres have lost three of five, and have been shut out 12 times this season.
“I thought he played very well for his first game. He can be very proud of his first experience. He acted like a very mature young man,” Sabres coach Ted Nolan said of his goaltender.
Buffalo fell to 22-49-8 and has three games remaining this season.
“I was very proud of the way we played. We battled well,” Nolan said. “You can’t ask for more. They’re giving (everything they have).”
Entering April 4 Buffalo’s 52 points were the fewest in the league, followed by the Arizona Coyotes’ 54.
Both the Coyotes and Sabres could finish the season with the league’s two worst records. The team that has the league’s worst record can select no lower than second in June’s draft.
The upcoming draft possesses what are widely considered to be generational talents in the Ontario Hockey League’s Erie Otters center Connor McDavid and Boston University freshman center Jack Eichel. McDavid had 120 points in 47 games, while Eichel had 67 in 38.
The Sabres had a power play after a four-minute double minor assessed to New York defenseman Brian Strait for high-sticking Buffalo left winger Nicholas Deslauriers late in the second period.
However, the Sabres only generated three shots on the power play that spanned the end of the second period and start of the third.
“It was big,” said Okposo of killing Buffalo’s four-minute power play. “Our penalty kill has been hot over the past month.”
Nelson made it 2-0 when he scored his 20th of the season 9:32 into the third. An unassisted goal, the play began when Zach Bogosian’s diagonal, cross-ice clearing pass ricocheted off a stick in the slot and Nelson retrieved the turnover just inside the blue line before sending an unassisted goal from the left faceoff circle.
“It happened pretty quick,” Bogosian said. “Off the stick and right to the guy.”
Kulemin ended the scoring with a tip of Travis Hamonic’s drive with 6:47 left. Despite moving to 46-27-6 this season, New York did not clinch a playoff berth.
Still, New York is in good position to qualify for the playoffs as it only needs two points in its final three games to get in.
“If you would have told us that at this point with 98 points, we’d still be battling, it’s very surprising,” Capuano said. “It’s amazing the races that are going on in the East and West. You can’t control that. You can control what you can control and that’s all we are focused on right now.