UNIONDALE, N.Y.– The New York Islanders are resting these next two days, preparing for the second leg of the Devils’s home-at-home on Sunday, but not before, one would imagine, taking a studious look back at the accomplishments achieved during this grueling but productive road trip.
The Islanders played five of the better teams in the Eastern Conference these past seven days, and earned 7 out of 10 points. Meanwhile, they’ve elevated their special teams to elite status, as both the PK and the Power Play now rank top 1% in the league.
And, for the most part, the Isles represent a successful hybrid of hockey, which now has some fans and critics believing them to be the NHL’s first legitimate dark-horse contender this year. Here’s a quick glance: a) an elite star in John Tavares and to a lesser degree, Matt Moulson, b) rescued and/or resurrected talent like Keith Aucoin and Brian Strait, c) emerging/surging talent like David Ullstrom, Michael Grabner, and Casey Cizikas, d) staple players like Evgeni Nabokov, Mark Streit, and Travis Hamonic.
All of the aforementioned coming within days of opening night. Waiver pick ups coalescing with current staff have served as the underpinning for this ragtag Islanders team that is quickly becoming a viable threat to any club on any night.
In an article written earlier this month, I went ahead and ‘declared’ this season the one for the underdog club, the ‘little guys’, who have much to prove and little with which to do it (be it money and/or talent.) But the X-factor for this truncated season is the equal playing field ill-preparation (coupled with high expectations) imposes upon ‘elite’ teams. As of now, the Philadelphia Flyers, New York Rangers, and Pittsburgh Penguins are playing below (or within the realm of) expectations, to say the least.
But no one ever expected that three aforementioned clubs would be looking up at the Islanders at any point this year.
Key Moments During Road Trip
- SPECIAL TEAMS:
- The Islanders’s Penalty Killing Unit is by far their strongest attribute, and what’s best, it came on the road in places like Boston, Pittsburgh, and New Jersey. Tested in the most stressful of occasions, as for example, with a minute and change remaining in regulation during a tie game against the Devils, or a 5 on 3 against Sidney Crosby and Co. Currently, the Isles are at 96% on the PK, second best only to the Chicago Blackhawks.
- Although rusty through the first three games of the season, the Islanders’s Power Play unit has catapulted to the top spot in the NHL at 37.5%, ahead of St. Louis.
Top Performers on the Road
- John Tavares leads the charge with 11 points: 4 goals and 7 assists, with 24 SOG. 10th best in the NHL.
- Matt Moulson has 8 points: 4 goals and 4 assists. His is a contribution defined by presence, resilience, and energy. He’s a statue in front of opposing nets, and is quick to clear pucks from danger, as this goal below best illustrates:
- Frans Nielsen is on a tear, leading the team with 7 assists, and his production is only going to increase with time. (He’s definitely playing some excellent hockey, at present.)
- Keith Aucoin is proving to be a key Waiver pick up, scoring 4 four goals, one on the Power Play. His line proved to be most productive during the onset of this past road trip
- Travis Hamonic has done everything but donate a kidney to the Islander cause: playing injured, taking the body, producing scoring opportunities, etc. As stated in an earlier article, he’s the heart and soul of the group.
- Michael Grabner is playing some of his best hockey, as well: resilient on special teams, pesky on the forecheck in general, and scoring his share of goals–tied with Tavares, Moulson, and Aucoin for team leaders in said category.
- Casey Cizikas is finding his rhythm as of late, contributing on both sides of the ice: 1 goal and 1 assist. But his biggest moment came on the backcheck as he dove to stave off a potential breakaway chance late in the 3rd against the Devils this past Thursday.
Issues/Players in Need of Redress
- Kyle Okposo is off his game thus far, and looked particularly disoriented this past Thursday. He had a solid game at home against the Tampa Bay Lightning, but has since fallen off. On Thursday, Coach Jack Capuano moved him down from the Tavares line to see if things would improve but to no avail.
- Marty Reasoner and Matt Carkner have shown their deficiencies on the backcheck, the nature of which are apparent if you’ve watched just one game this past road trip. Isles do need Carkner’s size on the ice, but his puck cycling needs vast improvement if he’s to stay on the ice for any significant amount of time.
- If there’s one department that needs a quick, nay, intelligent solution it’s the netminding. Nabokov is difficult to gauge at present, simply because he can offer the Isles a strong performance coupled with clumsy play, mainly in his clearing attempts along the boards and generous rebounds (in other words, almost everything. TAKE ANOTHER LOOK AT THE CLIP ABOVE.) Don’t get me wrong, Nabby is the reason we’re in first place, bar none. (Tavares and the others can score all they want, but if your goalie’s Swiss cheese, you’re not winning a thing.) But it’s more the idea that he’s 37 and most likely not going to Brooklyn.
- Rick DiPietro didn’t look all that game ready against Boston (and there’s enough ink on his current status and expectations, so no need to go there.)
- Goaltending is largest component missing/lacking from their overall schematics. Solve it and the NHL may very well see the Islanders making trouble for every single team out there for seasons to come.
What to Expect
- The Islanders are slated to play four games in six nights, three of which–the Devils, Penguins, and Sabres–are at home, while Thursday night’s game pins the Isles against their cross-town rival for the first time this season at Madison Square Garden. If the Isles were using the previous road trip to gauge where they are as a team, they’ll surely use the next series of games to see where they’re going.
- Expect blue collar hockey all the way through the end of the season. Provided that the goalies are sound, the Isles will be in contention until the end.
Follow Rich Diaz @eyesonisles