In the end, though, there was agreement from both sides -- each team got just what it deserved.
"You did have that feeling when they tied it, that here-we-go-again type thing," Islanders coach Jack Capuano said. "We battled. I give our guys a lot of credit. They stuck to the game plan."
The Wild didn't. Coach Mike Yeo expressed disappointment in several "fancy" and "soft" plays his team uncharacteristically tried to make, with four top-six forwards missing including captain Mikko Koivu, who sustained a lower-body injury in the previous game.
"There should be more urgency and desperation in our game," Yeo said. "I'm understanding of the fact that we have guys out ... but right now I'm a little edgy just because I expected something different."
Andy McDonald scored in the second period in his first game back from injury for the Islanders before Cal Clutterbuck tied it with 11:38 remaining in regulation. Niklas Backstrom made 35 saves for the Wild, the only reason they were able to steal a point and stay alone in the NHL lead with 45 points.
Backstrom kicked aside a shot by John Tavares in the first round of the shootout but let Nielsen's sail over his head into the top of the net. Backstrom has given up 10 shootout goals on 20 shots this season. The Wild lost their second straight decision by shootout and are 0-1-2 since a seven-game winning streak.
"We're just concerned about the way we played the game. We definitely weren't good enough tonight," center Kyle Brodziak said.
Montoya stopped Matt Cullen's backhander, then got his glove on shots by Marek Zidlicky and Dany Heatley to seal the victory, the first by the Islanders in their last five games. They had lost all six previous games that were tied at the end of regulation, two by shootout and four in overtime.
The Islanders, in last place in the Eastern Conference, have beaten the Wild twice and held them to 21 shots on goal each time -- New York's two lowest totals this season. They were 0-3-1 in their last four games, allowing an average of 29-plus shots on goal. Montoya started the first three of those, giving up 13 goals.
New York gave up eight goals after the second period in those previous four games.
"It would have been a tough loss because I like the way we played," Nielsen said.
The Islanders were strong in each zone, from angles to positioning to communication.
"It's definitely been a big hurdle. We would have liked to have won the game 1-0. We've had a bit of trouble doing that this year," McDonald said.
Right wing Jarod Palmer, recalled from the AHL affiliate Houston Aeros the day before, was the latest fill-in weaved into the lineup by Yeo, and the coach called him the team's best forward of the night. Palmer became the 10th rookie and 33rd player to play for the Wild this season, and the 25-year-old native of Fridley, Minn., was all over the ice, getting six shots on goal.
He came up to replace left wing Guillaume Latendresse, whose concussion recurrence landed him back on injured reserve. Devin Setoguchi (lower body) and Pierre-Marc Bouchard (facial injuries) were still out. Right wing Casey Wellman was missing again, too, because of an upper body injury. And Koivu was a big loss.
The altered first line came through. Heatley's shot from the top of the circle was tipped toward the net by Cullen, and Clutterbuck got a big enough piece of the rebound to control it before tapping in the puck as his stick scraped the goal post next to Montoya midway through the third period.
The Islanders outshot the Wild 24-9 through the first two periods, though, including 15-4 in the second, and their lead would've been much bigger if it weren't for Backstrom, who made tough save after tough save with the puck in his zone the majority of the night.
"Particularly with the depleted lineup, you have to have a little more tenacity in your game and we didn't have that," Cullen said.
The Islanders have been outscored 36-16 in the third period this season. ... Tavares has seven assists in his last eight games. ... The 33 players used by the Wild are tied for the most in the NHL with the Winnipeg Jets. The team record is 40, set two years ago. ... For the Islanders, former Wild RW Brian Rolston and D Steve Staios were each scratched because of a concussion. ... The Wild fell to 2-4-1 against Eastern Conference teams. ... Yeo said Bouchard was "very close" to returning. "But we're not going to put him in until he's real comfortable," he said.