UNIONDALE, N. Y.– The Islanders last played the Maple Leafs January 24th, the third game of this truncated season, and both teams were relatively rusty but filled with hope. By the close of the matchup, Michael Grabner had scored two goals with one assist in a decisive Islanders 7-4 road victory. At that time, the Islanders were a completely different team with an attitude pale in comparison to the one hovering over the Nassau Coliseum last night against the Boston Bruins.
In fact, come tomorrow night, the Islanders will bear witness to the amount of change between themselves and their opponent since their 24 Jan meet. As it stands, Toronto is now a formidable Eastern Conference foe, entering the contest with 24 pts (12-8-0), and battling with the equally pesky and successful Montreal Canadiens who defeated them 5-2 at home. Regardless of the result, the Leafs are still a relevant team and most certainly in consideration for some type of play off contention.
For the Islanders, the road trip in question saw their only glimmer of brilliance this year, as teams like the Penguins and Devils were handled rather well, and what was becoming apparent was an Islander squad filled with ragtag, blue collar guys ready to give the elite a run for their money. What ended happening at the end of said road show, was an Islander squad plateauing and then summarily falling off a cliff into mediocrity, obscurity, and now utter failure.
If you don’t believe me, let’s compare the month of February to discuss the obvious and move forward, in hopes of scrounging (and illustrating) whatever crumbs of hope and semblance of ability is to be found on this squad:
TORONTO is 8-5-0 as of this evening, sans the Habs outcome, and even if they tank that game, they will still be 2 above .500 and within shooting range of 5, count them, 5 other conference rivals: Pittsburgh, Carolina, Boston, Ottawa, and the Devils. Moreover, only three points separate the Leafs from a first place spot, and their doing it with simple team play (and some inspired by team points leader Nazem Kadri.) Also of interest, the Leafs have avoided overtime play for February, as if to say, either we win or lose , but we’re not playing extra hockey to figure things out. Taking care of business within the 60 and saving the legs and lungs to fight another day.
Some may argue that the Leafs haven’t played as many of the tougher teams as frequently as the Islanders, and this theory, on paper, is somewhat true yet somewhat erroneous. But for argument’s sake let us say that is so; let us say that when faced with an annoyingly talented squad like those Bruins from Beantown, they lose. And apparently, Carolina also has the Leafs’s number in their rolodex, because neither the Isles nor Toronto can manage to beat the ‘Canes. But they’ve taken care of the rest of the pile: Capitals, Jets, Senators, etc. to amass one of the better records in the East for the month of February.
Both the Habs and Leafs are two of the bigger surprises in the NHL, (actually three for me: never expected Washington to have such a bad start–lately they’re becoming my choice for the East’s darkhorse–another time for that subject) and if you watched a minute of the commentary at the season’s onset, you would’ve heard Barry Melrose & Co. count out the Isles, Leafs, Habs, and Sabres. Now we’re almost close to 2/3 of the season completed and teams like the Flyers and Rangers barely have a pulse. Strange season indeed.
The ISLANDERS are the worst home team in hockey, after splitting their opening season home opener and follow up respectively. The Islanders are 2-8 this season, and are one of the most scored upon teams in the league. But what remains somewhat of a mystery is how their special teams hover within the top team the NHL has to offer. Go figure.
Since 24 Jan, the Isles have only won 6 games, half of which came during regulation time. Simply put, there’s only been an anemic amount of matches the Isles can safely say they held a lead comfortably and skated to a decisive victory, or that they overpowered their opponent: These same Leafs three games in and the Devils almost 11 days ago.
Between then and tomorrow, we’ve seen John Tavares earn his NHL star for player of the week, tie Thomas Vanek for top goal scorer, the Isles lose 7-0 to a befuddled Flyers on home ice, have games stolen from them by Buffalo and Carolina, come within a point of first place in the entire conference, and now barely alive.
Tomorrow, will not be a repeat of that so-called dominance demonstrated January 24th in Toronto, where a burgeoning Keith Aucoin scored his first notch as an Islander (now you’ll lucky if he’s not a healthy scratch) or a Travis Hamonic lay hits and taking point shot after point shot (his play has fallen off as of late), or where a team picked up their game after their goalie had a shaky start (some of you might remember that the Isles were down early in that contest). That game also saw a rarity among Isles fans, an empty net goal that WE score on others. Here it is again for your viewing and nostalgic pleasure:
The ‘Leaf’ or worm that needs to turn for the Isles is to forget about everything, I mean everything the past and future have to offer. The old sports adage we hear so often from locker room interviews “Yeah, we have to play one game at a time” etc., is never more appropriate for a team than this one, and never a moment better to embrace it as a mantra than now.
The Crumbs of Brilliance
- John Tavares‘s 25 points
- Matt Martin, who is the best defenseman the Islanders have at the moment. In case you’re not an Isles’s fan, he’s a 4th line forward. (By the way, having seen him play in person, where I can keep my eyes focused on his movement, I have to say, I hope he scores some goals and his skating improves. He may never achieve Clark Gillies status, but he has some of Gillies grit. He’s one Islander, aside from JT, that I most admire at present)
- Evgeni Nabokov, who aside from the standard 1 to 2 soft goals per game, is the sole reason 7-0 outcomes aren’t more of a common occurrence
- Special teams: they are outstanding. Seriously. Considering the talent on the squad, it speaks volumes for Doug Weight‘s influence and brains on this side of the schematics
Hope and Prayers
- Hoping that Kyle Okposo awakens from his terrible scoring slump, and, again, having seen him play live and concentrating on his movements as well, I have to agree with my peer Scotty Bonner when he says that Okposo has no hands of which to speak. At times, he looked as if he couldn’t stand on his skates. I then realized what was going on with him: he’s just trying to damn hard. He’s playing clumsy, disorganized, brainless hockey out there. But I see hustle, but I don’t see a way out of his slump. He may very well have his worst season on record. Praying for him, if you will, that he doesn’t.
- Hoping Brian Strait comes back soon. The closest thing the Isles have to a blue-line defenseman
- Hoping the Islanders can salvage the home-stand for the sake of the fans; forget the season. I mean do we want this team to head into the playoffs looking like this hot mess? I sure as Hell don’t.
- Hoping Kevin Poulin plays better each and every time he’s between the pipes so that the Isles can begin to figure out how to handle, truly handle the Rick DiPietro debacle. And if you think that DP is gone forever, consider this: if DP were to be injured while playing for the SoundTigers, the Isles cannot buy him out according to his contract.
- Hoping the Isles be a true thorn in the side for teams like the Leafs and Rangers and Habs and give them headache after headache
- Hoping JT scores a boatload of goals
- Hoping the Sabres continue being as bad as they are so the Islanders look a little better
- And finally, hoping the Isles finish above .500 and reorganize their schematics in time for one last romp at the Coli before Brooklyn
Good day to you.
Follow Rich Diaz @eyesonisles
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