When you looked at the Islanders’ 2009-2010 season schedule at the beginning of the year, the seven-game road trip that covered a huge chunk of the month of November (the 11th to the 23rd) simply jumped off the pages. The seven games and more than 6,000 miles that will carry them into Thanksgiving week would undoubtedly define this young club’s season—a definition, many felt, that might include a few expletives.Well, they are just past the half-way point of the trip and at 2-0-2 the only definition that aptly captures the trek, and to this point the season, is shockingly successful—and after opening the season at 0-3-3 they’re turning more than a few heads these days.
“There’s a level of expectation that we can win now,” coach Scott Gordon said. “”There’s the confidence that if we’re playing our game, we’re going to have success. Every night it’s something different. The past two games were our power play, and (against Boston) it was our penalty kill and Roloson came up big.”
Gordon has the team on a 7-2-4 run after beginning the season 1-4-3. The second year coach is rolling out four lines every night for three periods so his club is fresher in the third, and that has been paying big dividends the last few weeks, as the Isles are protecting leads much more effectively than they were earlier in the year.
The compressed schedule due to the long Olympic break in February is presenting teams with a lot of three games in four nights stretches as well as more back-to-back games, so depth is playing an even more important role than usual.
And it doesn’t hurt when a team finds the occasional diamond in the rough (not something the Islanders have exactly specialized in) and Matt Moulson (three goals, two assists on the trip) certainly fits that description. The 26-year-old winger has apparently found a home on Long Island as he’s off to a remarkable 10-goal start and has formed a dynamic one-two combination with 19-year-old rookie John Tavares.
The 263rd player chosen (by the Penguins) in the 2003 draft, Moulson has that junkyard dog mentality (a less abrasive version of former NHLer Mike Ricci—a fellow Ontario native) and enjoys playing in traffic. As a result, loose pucks are finding his stick in front of the net. If you added up the total distance of his 10 tallies you might not reach much beyond the end of the goal crease and the team hasn’t had a player like that since Mark Parrish left in 2006.
When you add the nine goals the team has gotten from Tavares, a total that leads all NHL rookies, the pair have combined for 19 goals, or roughly one-third of the team’s total.
Give Gordon credit for recently moving Kyle Okposo off the Tavares’ line to spread the wealth offensively as the move has given the Isles’ attack more balance and has not slowed Moulson or Tavares at all. Richard Park has worked out well with the two and the promotion to the top line was well deserved for the tireless winger.
“We have a much more balanced attack now and it is making us a tougher club to play against, for sure. Everyone is contributing,” Gordon said earlier in the trip.
While the team is certainly not playing airtight defensive hockey (64 goals allowed, 24th worst in the NHL), they have been far more responsible in their defensive zone the last few weeks. Gordon’s aggressive forechecking system isn’t exactly about defense first so it’s unlikely the Isles will be battling for a Jennings Trophy (lowest goals against) this year, but that’s certainly not to say their defensemen aren’t making a difference every night.
Andy Sutton is enjoying his best stretch as an Islander and Jack Hillen is developing into a reliable puck carrier. Mark Streit is simply doing his thing every night, which is excelling at both ends of the rink and anchoring a surprisingly effective power play (21.1 percent).
The only negative of late is the team’s play in shootouts. The Islanders have played 21 games and 10 of them have gone beyond the regulation 60 minutes. While that’s an impressive amount of extra hockey they’re giving their fans, the fact remains they’ve only cashed in on nailing the extra point three of those 10 times.
A 1-4 record in what many refer to as “the skills competition” has shone a spotlight on the team’s lack of a true sniper up front. And while goaltender Dwayne Roloson has played well during regulation time (6-1, 2.76 goals allowed per game), he has often looked more like a slowing 40-year-old netminder in losing the three shootouts he’s faced.
That being said, the 8-6-7 Islanders have 23 points and that’s good enough for the seventh spot in the Eastern Conference, though there’s lots of hockey still to play. We had mentioned in last week’s column that there were points on the table during this trip and the Isles are grabbing them and with three games left against sub .500 teams the trip could get real interesting…and even more successful.
Isles have scored four or more goals in five straight games for the first time since December of 1993.
The road trip continues this Friday with a visit to Minnesota to face the Wild (7-11-2 ), then to St. Louis (6-8-4) the following night before ending in Toronto against the Leafs (3-10-5) next Monday. That’s a combined record of 16-29-11 so it’s not unreasonable to think a few more points are possible on this trip.
The next home game is against the Flyers on Thanksgiving Eve, Nov. 25.
With 38-year-old Doug Weight out the next four-to-six weeks (the ever-popular upper body injury) and looking like his playing time could be limited all year, might the Isles have interest in the Caps’ 37-year-old Michael Nylander? The shifty Swede, who has not played this season because Caps’ coach Bruce Boudreau doesn’t think he fits into the team’s system, recently cleared waivers. Caps’ GM George McPhee has said he is weighing his options with the veteran center and is listening to offers. What could Nylander possibly fetch? The guess is he’d come cheap and he’d be a good fit with the Isles who need a veteran pivot with some offensive pop to his game.
Need further evidence that Isles simply stink in the shootouts? How about last week’s game against the Caps (5-4, SO loss). After the first three rounds ended 1-1, the Isles were presented with eight straight opportunities to get the second point but didn’t come close to beating Semyon Varlamov. Isles shooters seem to get less and less creative as the breakaways rolled along. You got the feeling watching that they could have gone through the roster twice and they simply weren’t going to get one.