Islanders Feast On Duck(s), Eat Like Kings

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Islanders Insight
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Photo courtesy of :Dinur Blum, Flicker

Photo courtesy of :Dinur Blum, Flicker

The New York Islanders limped into Anaheim to face the Ducks on Wednesday night, carrying a three-game losing streak that had some in Islanders Country questioning whether there was anything different about the team that jumped out to a 4-0-0 start only to fade as the calendar turned to November.

Those fears on social media were put to rest—at least, until the next time they lose a game—as they rolled out of Los Angeles this morning fresh off of back-to-back victories against two league-powerhouse teams in the Ducks and Kings. “We went on a three-game skid and everybody wanted to hit the panic button,” Kyle Okposo told Newsday after last night’s win. “Not in here, though. We’re not the same team we’ve been.”

More impressive than gaining points back to back in Southern California for the first time since 2003 was the manner in which the Islanders accomplished that feat. They simply got back to basics: defense and goaltending.

Since the 5-0 loss to the Colorado Avalanche, the Islanders have been much tighter in their own zone and their man-on-man coverage has been much improved. Is it perfect? Hardly. But it’s much better than it had been. The goaltending tandem of Jaroslav Halak (five goals against in last two games) and Chad Johnson (28 saves vs. Los Angeles) has stabilized as positive regression seems to have begun taking its course.

Lubomir Visnovsky continues to get better in each game he takes the ice, as his conditioning is returning after he missed almost all training camp (and the beginning of the season) with back spasms. He led New York in ice time last night for the first time this season, logging 23:40 in total, of which 5:26 came on the power play.

Johnny Boychuk continues to be a steady presence and escaped injury last night when Tyler Clifford slid his feet out from under him in the second period. Nick Leddy is the man in transition, the smoothest skater we have seen on the Islanders blue line since possibly Kenny Jonsson.

Most important in the Isles’ miniature transformation has been the assistance of forwards coming back to help out in the defensive zone. Clogging up the slot area and being aggressive on the opponents’ point men has paid dividends, as has the club’s system of collapsing down low to cover up rebounds and clear them away from the crease.

In terms of the offense, it was expected to regress negatively after such a hot start to the year—18 goals in first four games, 4.50 GPG—and it certainly has, as the Isles have only collected 21 goals in their last nine games (2.33 GPG). The grand total is still good for ninth best in the entire league (the two shootout goals were excluded), and believe it or not, their 26 even-strength goals through 13 games is a respectable total. Possession-based advanced stats also show New York is performing at a high level this season.

And what about that penalty kill, huh? 4-of-4 against the Kings was made possible by a more aggressive puck-pursuit system. This is not to say everything is perfect heading into tomorrow night’s game with the Arizona Coyotes, however. Casey Cizikas, a healthy scratch for the Ducks game, returned to the lineup for Cory Conacher, and played just “eh.” In 8:19 of ice time, he lost 4-of-7 faceoffs and almost put the puck into his own net when crossing in front of Johnson in the second period. Not the kind of performance the coaching staff wanted to see in a guy coming off of a healthy scratch.

Ryan Strome continues to plug along without making much of an impact, however with the power-play minutes he is now receiving as part of the top unit may spark his offensive game. Thomas Hickey has been inconsistent at best after coming off a career season last year, and John Tavares has looked like John Tavares only once in the past six games. His horrendous turnover at the Kings blue line last night almost cost New York the game had Travis Hamonic not impeded Mike Richards with a Paul Bunyan hack, forcing a relatively easy save by Johnson on the ensuing breakaway.

With the Metropolitan Division seemingly up for grabs, the Islanders cannot let the season get away from them early on. However, it’s important to note that every NHL season has its ups and downs; not many teams dominate from start to finish. There are always ebbs and flows, injuries to deal with, and inconsistencies to manage. I point to the last two Stanley Cup finalists from each conference as a reference. The New York Rangers were 20-19-2 on Jan. 1 last season before rolling to the playoffs on the strength of a 25-12-4 second half. The Los Angeles Kings were the inverse, starting off 25-12-4 and finishing 21-16-4. They still won the Cup. So.

A year earlier (the lockout-shortened season), the Boston Bruins started out on fire with a 13-2-2 record before going 15-12-4 in the season’s second half. The Chicago Blackhawks are the only exception to this rule, going an incredible 17-0-3 in the first half and 19-7-2 in the second half in 2012-13. (And before you start yelling: I am in no way comparing the New York Islanders to the Chicago Blackhawks.)

There are still 69 games to go for the Isles this year. Strap yourselves in and try to enjoy the wins but more importantly, ride out the losses. It won’t be perfect and it won’t be easy. But that’s not to say it can’t be fun all the same. As the Islanders continue to forge their identity—as evidenced in Johnson’s comments to Newsday last night—the fanbase will have to forge its own as well: “We stuck together and played a real strong game,” Johnson said. “It’s nice to see our identity start to come out a bit.”


Friday Notes

  • Jiggs McDonald will call tomorrow night’s game in Glendale, AZ with Butch Goring. (Unconfirmed rumors have him calling Tuesday’s game against Colorado as well.) Per Eric Hornick, the Isles are 12-1-3 in the last 16 games Jiggs has announced.
  • Darryl Sutter, addressing the media last night: “We got a point vs a really good team tonight.”
  • Visnovsky led ice time usage overall at 23:40; Tavares led forwards at 22:57. (Boulton had a game-low 4:55.) There was a five-minute disparity between the Isles’ third and fourth lines last night.
  • Isles once again struggled in the faceoff circle, losing 33-of-55 (40%)
  • Okposo had eight shot attempts to lead the team, followed by Brock Nelson‘s seven.
  • Nick Leddy’s next point will be his 100th in the NHL.
  • Josh Bailey continues to skate in a non-contact jersey but could return for next weekend’s games in Florida.
  • Michael Grabner is still about three weeks away from coming off IR.
  • If you want to see some awesome pics of the Islanders two game swing, check out Dinur Blum on Flickr. Ducks | Kings. Really great work.

Islanders Feast On Duck(s), Eat Like Kings
Andy Graziano