Earlier this week, Islander coach Scott Gordon claimed the team had recently “lost that element of physical play” they had earlier in the year. Not sure exactly when that element has really been a part of this team’s make-up but they are surely losing the physical battles these days, especially up front, during a recent 4-7 stretch.
The good news is the schedule has brought them back home after a grueling run of 12 out of 14 on the road, but it won’t matter where they play if the forwards consistently treat battles for loose pucks with such indifference. Tiger Woods’ wife is more aggressive with a stick in her hands than most Islander forwards.
While a 3-2 overtime win against Boston on Saturday was a great way to start a run of eight of 10 at home, the third period of that game, once again, separated the men from the boys. Outshot 17-3 and manhandled at every turn, only Dwayne Roloson’s heroics between the pipes saved this one from being another damaging loss.
Gordon almost seemed apologetic in his post game assessment of his team as he sheepishly admitted, “We were outplayed tonight and kind of escaped with the two points. I guess you could say it was payback for the game in Boston [back in early October] where we felt we should have gotten two points but didn’t.”
Huh? That was the third game of the year and his club blew a three-goal, third period lead before losing in a shootout, 4-3. Not exactly a gem.
The Philadelphia Flyers pushed the Isles all over the Wachovia Center ice surface last Tuesday, including a cheap shot from Chris Pronger to rookie John Tavares’ head. Credit the kid for peeling his face off the glass quickly enough to score a pair of power play goals in a generally lifeless 6-2 loss, but Gordon’s “overspeed” system might need to add a little good, old fashioned body contact at some point…soon.
Andy Sutton’s return this week from a cranky groin will certainly help but the real problem is the lost battles for loose pucks in the offensive zone. For a club that is short on snipers, winning those battles is key to their ability to generate offense.
“That’s been accumulating [losing battles for loose pucks] over this stretch. We’re not forechecking like we were a month ago. It’s been deteriorating,” Gordon explained after the 3-2 loss last Wednesday in Toronto. However, even when the club has had the forecheck working, they certainly weren’t wearing teams out physically.
In typical Islanders fashion, all the focus lately has been on goaltender Rick DiPietro’s comeback attempt. Such fuss over the one position the team has actually straightened out this year—goalie—seems misdirected. Gordon was asked if he was concerned over the “tightness” DiPietro felt after his last AHL start. Concerned? Over a goalie that hasn’t faced an NHL shot in almost a year and with two former No. 1s currently on the roster?
How about asking the coach if he’s concerned that his club regularly gets pushed around every night and if GM Garth Snow plans on addressing that anytime soon?
Despite all the above, at 12-13-7 the team sits just two points from the eighth spot in the conference and just seven points from fifth. With all the home cookin’ on tap through the New Year the opportunity is there to make a serious statement on their intention to play beyond the beginning of April. However, in a tightly bunched Eastern Conference they are also merely two points from the 14th spot, so a rough stretch could also consequently end the season as well.
Several forwards have clearly emerged as leaders but none as consistently as Kyle Okposo. One of the few with which the aforementioned physical element is never an issue, Okposo is turning into one of the best two-way forwards in the league.
It is also becoming clear the Isles made the right move in selecting John Tavares with that first pick this summer. Though he hasn’t exactly displayed a dazzling skill set night after night, loose pucks keep finding this kid’s stick in front and he clearly knows how to avoid traffic in the slot. Exactly the kind of attributes all great goal scorers posses.
Unfortunately there are other young forwards on the club that are currently moving in the opposite direction. Frans Nielsen was headed for the side of a milk carton prior to his OT winner Saturday, his first goal in 15 games, and Josh Bailey has hit a rough stretch going over 20 periods without a shot on goal. Not sure recent call-up Jesse Joensuu is the answer either despite the Fin’s 6-foot-4-inch, 210-pound frame.
Doug Weight’s expected pre-Christmas return certainly won’t hurt, but the team has been quiet about exactly when that might be and the veteran center’s reinsertion into the lineup won’t address the general lack of snarl up front.
Progress continues to be the watchword on Long Island with regard to this season, but we had asked this questions earlier and it is still one worth examining—Are the Isles hanging in or simply hanging on?
Even in the “post-lockout” NHL, with a greater emphasis on skating, the top teams in the league still win games by adding a physical element, that same one Gordon claims this club has lost. Figuring out how to find something you never had might be an even more difficult trick than making a run at a playoff spot.
The “Three Stars of the Game” selections have consistently been head scratchers at the Coliseum, but the announcements after Saturday’s win over Boston that Rob Schremp and Frans Nielsen had been awarded the second and first stars respectively was a new low. How could members of the media covering that game miss Dwayne Roloson’s third period magic show, Kyle Okposo’s indefatigable effort all night and Blake Comeau’s best game since Ted Nolan left? They are consistently cheapening that great tradition with selections like Saturday night’s.
With John Steven’s departure in Philly, Scott Gordon is now the longest tenured coach in the Atlantic Division. Guess that makes him the Old Man in the Sea…no?
A much bigger deal is being made of the Rick DiPietro situation than need be. While the Islanders organization had mentioned that a mid-December return to the team was a possibility, the 28-year-old has had surgery on both hips and both knees in the past two years and last played an NHL game on Jan. 2. Saner heads should prevail here and letting DiPietro play for Bridgeport till after the Olympic break is the most likely scenario to play out. The team is relatively solid in net right now with Roloson emerging as a true No. 1 and Martin Biron providing perhaps the most reliable back-up the team has had in years. Besides, Biron’s value is likely to increase much later in the season as potential injuries and various playoff possibilities unfold. Everyone needs to calm down a bit with regard to DP.
On top of all the home games coming up the Isles face the Rangers three times in an 11-day stretch beginning with a home-and-home this Wednesday (Coliseum) and Thursday (Garden). Add the Florida Panthers at the Coliseum tonight and then back home again for the Canadians on Saturday.
Good example of what the condensed first-half, due to the two-week Olympic break, has done to the NHL schedule—through Jan. 2 last season the Isles had played 36 games while this year that number will be 43.