Islanders vs. Senators Preview: Another line shuffle, the same goat

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Tonight is guaranteed to be interesting, if for no other reason than to see how the bipolar Islanders respond after their worst home shutout loss in franchise history.

They visit the Ottawa Senators, who also flew back from New York after an afternoon game in Newark Monday. The Senators are without Jason Spezza and Erik Karlsson long-term, so they will subsist by scrounging for offense and hoping for throwback performances from Daniel Alfredsson.

Shaken by yesterday's loss, Jack Capuano has altered the lineup slightly after yesterday saying there weren't many changes he could make. Marty Reasoner, reported to be shopped around the league or headed to waivers at the next waiver necessity, returns as David Ullstrom returns to the press box doghouse, where he is taking the brunt of recent scratches even though there have been multiple "passengers" in the Isles' worst games.

That creates the following two middle-six and mixed-up lines, per Arthur Staple:

Bailey - Nielsen - Aucoin
Grabner - Reasoner - Okposo

Apologies for quoting Hannibal Lecter again, but that mix still feels desperately random. There is no defensive specialist line, for one, the charge of the bottom three lines looks like "get it out, get it deep, change for Johnny T."

Evgeni Nabokov rests for Rick DiPietro. Thomas Hickey steps in for the injured Brian Strait.

Ott-lowslim_medium Nyi-islim_medium
Senators (8-6-2, 7th/E) vs. Islanders (6-8-1, 11th/E)
7:30 p.m. EDT | MSG+ | Audio:
NHL - WRHU
Nassau [
gloriously unsponsored] Veterans Mem. Coliseum
The Real MacLean
: Silver Seven

Because this is sports, we are desperate to know the how and why, yet opinions are varied and passionate over what ails a team that shows blips of promise only to undo that with flat starts, or quickly squandered one-goal leads, or whatever your poison of the moment. It's helpful to remember that flawed teams show their warts in intermittent and maddening spurts. Average teams also build hope with occasional swings the other way.

Over the last five games the Islanders have:

  • lost a close game despite outplaying Buffalo
  • lost to Carolina after blowing three one-goal leads created by their powerplay
  • survived an awful start to get by the Rangers via shootout
  • blown out the Devils thanks to the powerplay and good overall play
  • rolled over at home to the Flyers

Despite the collective psychology that consumes fans who watch this team day after day, there is no real common thread to the last five games except: winning the goal battle at 5-on-5 still ails them -- as it has for the past four-plus seasons -- and they live and die by the powerplay. The question on many of our minds is, does this lineup have the capacity to do better at 5-on-5?

For the first time in this rebuild, I'm in the position of thinking "Yes," albeit with a caveat about the goaltending. They have the ingredients to be a "bubble" fighter without John Tavares and the powerplay essentially being the difference in each win. But the approach, the line matching, and the order at 5-on-5 seems to lack what would eke out little non-Tavares edges here and there. Hahder and smahter is not the answer, unless smahter includes having a plan in the offensive zone that even the third and fourth lines can deploy, and a defensive zone plan that further suppresses shots.

Are We Deceiving?

Or is the problem elsewhere? Their shots for/shots against ratio is level, better than it's been in recent seasons. (But it's early.) In close situations, their control of the game is quite befitting a bubble team. (But it's early.) Their PDO -- a sort of gauge of luck trends -- is quite low, so if the goaltending had been better the Isles would have stolen a few more wins by now and we might be having a completely different conversation despite all other factors being the same. They have given up 40 goals against at 5-on-5, worst in the league through 15 games. (Granted, yesterday's 7-0 blowout goosed that total. But only from "bad" to "worst.")

But that's just a clouded bird's eye view of things, putting the transient day-to-day lens up against the still-small sample of underlying numbers. They have another chance for redemption tonight against a wounded opponent. Technically, in this young season they are still a bubble team -- four points out of eighth in the East and with a chance to gain to pull within three points of tonight's seventh-place opponent.

Still, three-point games in the NHL obscure. The Isles are in the middle of a five-in-seven-days stretch and will meet the entire Northeast Division by the end of this month. How will they respond? How far away will 8th be by March 1? How will the metrics cited above shift to give a clearer answer?

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