Hockey from the Blind Side, Thoughts and Observations for the Coming Season – the Goaltending Factor

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Yes, I am a few days behind. I meant to have all four parts of my series on factors that will/might effect the level of the Islanders success this season, but it didn’t work out that way.

So, continuing on with the final part, I will discuss the impact goaltending might have on the current season and its overall importance. I will go as far as to say that this last point is probably the most important factor I have written about thus far.

In my previous posts, I first discussed the need to find a right winger to play with John Tavares and Matt Moulson. Then, I talked about the subject of secondary scoring and how that will impact the level of success the Isles will have. In my previous post along these lines, I went into the area of the defense and how the blue liners will play a major part in how well the New York Islanders end up doing by season’s end.There has been a lot written about the topic of the goaltending on the Islanders in various other places during the off season. In fact, during our Islander season preview, that was the area I focused on. Goaltending can either make or break a team, and the teams that do well in the regular season and advance into the playoffs have the luxury of a good goaltender or, in some cases, a pair of goaltenders who can keep the puck out of their net.

In the case of the Islanders, I have read in some places that they could be an injury away from having a serious problem. There was a time in which the goaltending matter was not at all a problem for the Isles, but to be honest, that is still the one area of concern I still hold. It is the linchpin of this team that could make the biggest difference by the conclusion of the season. I don’t believe scoring goals will be a problem for this team, but keeping pucks out of the net has been an issue at times in the recent past.

• Evgeni Nabokov, the #1 net-minder.

After signing Evgeni Nabokov to another year on the island, he has become “the man” for the orange and blue. Like it or not, he is the #1 goaltender, and to me, I am perfectly fine with that. I believe that he has the experience and the skill to hold the fort, and despite his 38 year age, I feel that he has a lot of gas left in the tank.

The important part of the equation, though, will be the number of starts Nabby is tasked to handle. Here is the tricky part in regard to that. He started 41 of the 48 games last season, and the work load definitely took its tole when it came time for the playoffs. That was a lot of hockey in a compressed period of time to ask a 37 year old to play in, and that simply cannot be the case this season. Besides it being an 82 game season, some folks forget that with the olympic break, those 82 games are, again, compressed as well. I believe it’s something like 82 games in 174 or 178 days or something like that.

There are two questions that then become important. Just how many of those games will Nabokov be asked to start? What is the optimum number of games that the Isles should target for him to start?

This is, of course, strictly my opinion, but, to me, I think the Islanders have to look at under 60 games at the very least. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that 55 should be the limit or the “safe” total. I think if the work load goes over 60, that will effect Nabokov’s play come April and beyond.

• Kevin Poulin, can he recapture his previous form?

Prior to his knee injury a few seasons ago, it was a pretty strong bet that he was going to be the goaltender of the future for the Isles. He had a great junior career and had received praise from even the likes of Patrick Roy. I had only been reading good things about him, which had really been something to look forward to for the future.

Then came the injury, however. Last season, to be blunt, he just didn’t look like the guy who had previously come up from the Port. There was just something missing from his game, and, sometimes, you found yourself holding your breath when he went to make a basic save. This simply was Not the Kevin Poulin that had dazzled and impressed in the past, and many wondered if he still had not recovered from the knee injury or if he was still recovering from it.

The basic question regarding Kevin is can he be the backup for Nabokov? He has the job, and he will be counted on as the season progresses, particularly since the Islanders have 19 back to back game situations to go this season. Nabby surely cannot be asked to play every back to back game as he did this weekend.

In order for the Islanders to be successful this season, Kevin Poulin is going to have to be counted on to start 25 plus games. There is no way around that fact. Besides starting those games, he also is going to have to be Good if not, Great in those games. If that is not the case, the Islanders will quickly need to find an alternative solution and one that will get the job done. There is no way around that reality in my view.

Again, I will repeat that I think the goaltending factor is the one area that creates the most anxiety in me when I consider the season we now have just begun. The combination of Nabokov and Poulin is what we have, and I feel that if handled with balance in mind, it can be a successful one. I think we will see Nabby come up with the kinds of saves we saw Saturday night against Columbus, and my instincts tell me that Kevin Poulin just needs some games under his belt to enable him to establish his form once more.

Over the next month or two, though, we will certainly get a pretty good idea of how the goaltending will hold up for the Islanders. That is just the reality of the situation. Let us hope and pray that Nabokov will stay healthy and that Poulin can step up and get the job done when he is called upon to do so. If not, Garth Snow is going to be faced with a big problem to have to solve.

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