UNIONDALE, N. Y. — Would’ves. Could’ves. Should’ves. All the aforementioned by-products of a stellar performance doused with the most bitter of vinegar. The New York Islanders played their best hockey this past Thursday against a long-time rival, Conference foe, and quite frankly, an incredibly stacked team with a stellar goaltender. Nevermind the standings.
But at the halfway mark of the season, the Islanders are doing better than expected, in all honesty. Not too long ago, the Isles were facing the cellar. Before that, they were within 2 points of a first place spot in the entire conference. That’s quite an accomplishment for a team most people love to ridicule or feeling sorry for.
The roller-coaster ride that best defines the emotions and play this season has engendered, speaks volumes for this team’s talent and heart, both positively and negatively, both [talent/heart] at their disposal and what is most lacking. The victories, small and large, come from the absolutely brilliant play of John Tavares, the valiant effort of Evgeni Nabokov, the skating prowess of Michael Grabner, the grit of Matt Martin and (at the onset of the season) Travis Hamonic; the defeats, glaring and frustrating, derive from non-existent middle lines that needs to be mix-and-matched to establish some semblance of balance, with weak play from Marty Reasoner, Keith Aucoin, Andrew MacDonald, and the injury to Brian Strait and no solid back-up goaltending doesn’t help either.
The list goes on and on, but one thing remains clear from Thursday night’s OT loss: the Islanders are a good team, but not a great one. They’re no longer mediocre, but rather, truly and wholeheartedly rebuilding. Most importantly, they accomplished something last night that I most hoped for at the beginning of the year: they’re a pesky, blue-collar group of players whose goal is to win, but more than that, prohibiting themselves from lying down.
The loss to the Flyers 7-0 and the current homestand has everything to do with a team’s search for identity. They found it last night. That bitter OT loss will be the defining moment, either way. However the Isles respond, rest assured this OT loss will be the game that comes to mark a departure from this current state of affairs.
NO, it doesn’t mean that they’ll go on any sort of streak, in either direction: they’re just not built for that. Will they Isles lose more than they win, of course, but expect more roller coaster-type sensations until the very end because that’s who this team is at present. They’re finding themselves on every shift and with every shot.
Don’t believe me, ask yourself if you thought Matt Martin would be as huge an asset as JT? You disagree? Think about what this team would look like with out Matty Martin? Imagine his absence this past Thursday, or Tuesday against the Habs? Imagine Strait and Lubomir Visnovsky (this sideshow saga hasn’t hurt the Isles as much as it has Lubo’s credibility…more on this another time) actually playing consistently? See, would’ve, could’ve, etc. Yet, here we are: top ten PK and PP, and within striking distance of both the cellar and the final playoff spot. Go figure.
HONESTY is the Best Policy
If we are going to be honest fans, we all must respect the New York Rangers of today, and begin passing out accolades to one Rick Nash, who, for me, defines a professional hockey player in his prime. If not, then the efforts put forth by the Isles were fruitless at best. So who did they lose to? (I know you’re itching to say, “A bunch of punk-a*ses, but then you’re not really looking closely or truthfully enough.)
For the Islanders skated, hustled, and battled like a team on Thursday, and although managed only one-point in the end, have absolutely nothing to hang their heads about. Nothing. Why? Because the Rangers are built for the regular and post-season. Forget the current record. It’s a truncated season. The Rangers have as legitimate a chance to make it to the cup final as the Habs, Leafs, and Devils do. If not more. They have the best goaltender in the NHL, and I’m sure once they make the playoffs, the Ranger’s and Henrik Lundqvist will brandish their talents and truly do some serious damage in the post-season.
Can we say the same about the Islanders? Forget your love for the team and JT for just one second. Can you say that the Islanders have defensemen to lead the backcheck in a game 6 or 7? A goalie that you trust in all situations, say an OT game 6 with everything on the line? Second and third lines that can produce goals on a consistent basis? We have a solid 4th line (two out three members for sure). You can always count on Matt Martin to give you what he’s being paid to do: be physical, be disruptive, and shoot at the net. Casey Cizikas is playing with as much pep as any Islander wearing a uniform, and it’s only a matter of time when he realizes he can score as well as wreak havoc along the boards.
Of course the Isles ‘out-played’ and ‘out-manned’ the Rangers, but they didn’t outscore them. Simply put, you cannot do so when you have a scattered talent base the likes of which you find on this current squad. John Tavares and Michael Grabner along with Matt Moulson constitute our scoring power and potential that is most consistently on the ice game in game out. But of the three, only Tavares is able to finish. Not enough. Not nearly enough.
Let Me Digress/Regress
But let me end by saying this one quasi-prophetic and equally contradictory statement: IF the Isles fall in love with both the process and the product/end result of playing hard-nose hockey, if for a moment deter from thinking/dreaming big, if they put their noses to the grind-stone, muscle out wins, kick some serious ass, and end up in the playoffs…let me just say, that I’d hate to be the team playing them. ‘Spoilers’ is least of the adjectives I’d used to describe a team of that caliber. But I can also point you to an example of just such a team: 1979-1980 Islanders. Tough. Loads of talent. One piece was missing and it would soon come in the form of Butch Goring that same year. Etc. etc. etc.
What I mean by the process versus the product is quite simple really: not setting great expectations, but admiring that you’re playing your best, hardest-hitting hockey day in day out, and that if you lose a game like the one this past Thursday, you don’t allow yourself to feel pity or blame a ref for a bad call. Rather you go against the Washington Capitals, who don’t know what you’re about yet, and completely wreck Alex Ovechkin. And when you see him slowly getting up, you realize that today’s another day, and that means a day to erase the past and write a better future. To be tough on both sides of the puck and accepting of Fortune’s fancy.
For me, I’d rather see a tough bunch of guys who know the meaning of LOSING and WINNING to the utmost, who do not play with fear (Chicago) but with goddamn resilience each and every day; who don’t look at standings, scoreboards, who just play hard-pressed, high pressure hockey, than be a Chicago Blackhawks.
Spit on me. Lambaste me. Disagree with me. The Hawks are playing with fear. My opinion, but I’ve watched enough sports to know that these types of streaks hinder more than they help. Who cares about streaks. People care about Stanley Cups. And imagine if they don’t win it all? C-H-O-K-E! Imagine the offseason. (You might ask: So, what, you’re saying that teams should lose on purpose? NO! More on this later on as well.)
I’ve always hated the Rags. Always. Hated them in the 80s, especially in the 90s when they were the New York Oilers, but not so much today. Today I see a Ryan Callahan, a Rick Nash and others, and I see a team who can win in tough spots. I’m not rooting for them, but I cannot honestly say they ‘suck’. Again, if I do, I belittle the wonderful effort put forth by my beloved Isles, who left it all on the ice this past Thursday.
The Rangers are resilient, as are the Bruins, Habs, Leafs, and Bolts. I’ve watched more Eastern conference games than Western, so I cannot speak of teams like the Red Wings, Stars, et al with much expertise. But I will say this: aside from the Blues, I cannot see any Western team coming close to taking down an Eastern one in the finals. Whatever you may think and what little actual proof I have is irrelevant at this moment in time. It’s just a gut reaction. The East will win the cup, unless the Blues are in the finals. If they are, maybe things may be different. Once the Blues recuperate from their injuries, you’ll see that I was somewhat correct in my conjectures.
By the way, Ottawa is the most resilient team in all of hockey. You have 7 key players out and still maintain some semblance of relevancy, you’re a badass team. Ottawa defines the Eastern Conference’s grit.
In summa, the New York Islanders are being taught how to play resilient hockey via the competition, and they’re holding their own. They will not win the Stanley Cup, but they will win games and make their opponents better teams in the process…and vice-versa.
So this drivel I’ve just written is as much a defense of Islander resiliency as it is a testament to a Conference I believe would have ended the Blackhawks’s streak a month ago. For me the best hockey is in the East. That’s it.
Follow Rich Diaz, if you want, @eyesonisles
- The Islanders play a 1pm matinee against the Washington Capitals tomorrow. They’re first meet of the year. We will see what our team is made of these next 24 games
- Michael Grabner: a necessary penalty this past Thursday, but albeit a bad one. Proving that without Grabs on the PK, there’s no PK of which to speak
- Kyle Okposo is not a bad player; he’s an erratic and imbalanced one. His bad penalties are costing the Isles goals, but his forechecking is improving.
- Marty Reasoner needs to go
- Mark Streit shouldn’t captain a rowboat let alone John Tavares’s New York Islanders
- Matt Martin must destroy Alex Ovechkin
- Brian Strait please get better soon; Matt Carkner, you too
- Keith Aucoin, are you still there?
- David Ullstrom must play more games and more shifts GOOD DAY to you