UNIONDALE, N. Y.– The Buffalo Sabres steal a 3-2 victory from the hapless New York Islanders, jumping two more points ahead in the Eastern Conference standings.
Ryan Miller faced a staggering 43 shots allowing only two goals, while Thomas Vanek continues his points streak, scoring one goal (11th for the season) and assisting on Christian Ehrhoff‘s equalizer at the 12:21 mark of the second period. In all, the Sabres’s netminder kept this equally struggling team in the game long enough to capitalize on any Islander miscue, and did so in an efficient manner.
Tonight’s matchup showcased two teams identical in almost every aspect of their game with the exception of movement and placement within the standings. And if the Islanders ever wanted a legitimate assessment of where they are as a team, this evening’s contest surely delivered a sobering (and perhaps bleak) summary:
Little to No Physical Presence on the Ice
At the 9:11 mark of the first Vanek notches Buffalo’s first, all while four New York Islanders stood around playing curling (I exaggerate: glided around) instead of shoving guys away from the crease, starting with Vanek:
The Islanders’s physical game has ebbed and flowed since the season began, and there hasn’t been a match yet that boasts an Isles team establishing dominance along the boards, and/or within their own zone, but especially in front of their crease. They are obviously not that kind of team, equipped with enough grinders and bruisers to set such a tone, but at least try to clear the net. Take a penalty. Do something. The M&M (Matt Martin and Matt Carkner) duet hasn’t lived up to anything resembling success, although Martin has shown brief glimpses of inspired backchecking, and even a goal now and again (against the Bolts, 21 Jan.) Carkner is currently on IR, by the way.
2. Inconsistent Backchecking
The Islanders’s Achilles heel is their inefficiency inside their own zone. As already mentioned, they’re having trouble clearing away rebounds and opposing players, but also failing to disrupt Neutral Zone transitions into their own zone and clogging up shooting lanes in the process. All the aforementioned notwithstanding, perhaps in most need of attention is the Isles’s inability to play a solid man-to-man defensive game. As you will see below, David Ullstrom strays from his mark, an obvious miscue on his part, which allows the Sabres to capitalize quickly. (Goals like this one below, in a game that saw 28 shots separating the two clubs by evening’s end, serve only to destroy morale and confidence. A team needn’t barrage their opponent with shots to win, just goals.)
Which Islanders’s team is the more disappointing, one must ask: the one that plays a stale, flat game, the likes of which we witnessed against the NYR, or tonight’s more energetic, yet ineffective, one? In either case, both teams were summarily beaten.
And the ship just keeps on sinking and the band just keeps on playing. (I could be exaggerating again, but I know one thing for certain: the Isles are an absolutely terrible team. Yes, there are standouts, which I will address in a minute, but let me reiterate: the Islanders are terrible.)
Evgeni Nabokov is either incredibly tired, or has run his course as a net-minder. While he is not the direct reason the Islanders are doing poorly, Nabby’s inconsistencies come at the most inopportune times:
To say that Nabokov cost the Isles the game last night is both unfair and inaccurate. But, nevertheless, for the same reason the Isles lost, the Sabres won: their goalie was better.
And that’s been the case for the duration of the Isles’s slump: Nabby hasn’t had ‘it’ lately, and it’s costing the Isles lots of chances. Yes, it’s time that Rick DiPietro suit and earn his keep. Enough already.
But lest we forget the real issue, by and large:…
4. Power-less Play
The Islanders are 0 for their last 22 on the Power Play, and although currently ranked 5th in the NHL for the PK, their special teams as of late are just atrocious. There’s no creativity, organization, and chemistry on the PP, and it’s costing the Islanders wins. Point to whomever you choose: the ineffectiveness of this player versus that player, the goalie, etc. But when a team is solidified, it shows up in their special teams; when it’s disharmonious it shows up as 0-22 on the PP.
Nabby can be blamed for one or two soft goals, even three, but the team needs to shoulder the vast majority of the blame when it cannot manage 5 on 5 hockey to save their lives, and play a PP as if THEY’RE the team down a man.
When this issue is fixed, the Islanders will regain their winning composure. If not, they’ll dwell in the cellar for the remaining portion of this season, thanking the hockey gods that it’s a shortened one.
- John Tavares continues playing his best hockey, scoring the tying goal late in the first period, assisted by Brad Boyes and Brian Strait. Tavares was awared a penalty shot that could’ve tied the game late in the third, but his shot clanked off the crossbar. Them’s the breaks. I will not speak ill of the only Islanders forward doing his all to win.
- Lubomir Visnovsky played 20+ minutes and showed consistent energy to his game (conditioning being a concern): bringing in pucks inside the offensive zone, taking blue line shots with confidence, and helping with puck cycling on both ends of the rink. He finished the night +2 and was most definitely one of the few Islanders of notice. In all, Visnovsky looks to be promising and once the Isles escape their funk (and they will) and play with more controlled confidence, Visnovsky will be staunchly in place leading the charge defensively.
- Brain Strait had himself a solid game overall: two assists last night and also finishing +2 for the night. I say that Strait and Lubo will gel quickly on the backend of things, and from there, the Isles will find a way back to the light.
- The Islanders’s target practice against Miller proved fruitless, but did show moments of tenacity and desire, something completely absent against the NYR (their worst performance to date; tonight’s an example of their worst outcome, and not necessarily their worst showing.) So, 40+ shots is a good sign that the Isles ARE NOT BACKING DOWN. But a loss shows that something isn’t ‘clicking’ in the worst way.
Here’s to hoping this week’s matchups find an Isles squad out for redemption against the teams (NYR, Penguins, and the apparently irrepressible Devils) that defeated them quite convincingly. But first, a visit from the Carolina Hurricanes.
Follow Rich Diaz @eyesonisles