UNIONDALE, NY– Good evening, Isles fans. I haven’t fully recovered from my emotional hangover caused from Game Five, but I’m slowly getting there. The loss to Pittsburgh was as tough as it gets.
Jack Capuano made a couple of line-changes in preparation for Game 5: the fourth-line was slightly tweaked, Jesse Joensuu replacing David Ullstrom. Because of Andrew MacDonald’s recent upper body injury, Cappy was forced to tinker with his defensive pairings. In what was a bit of a surprise, the Islanders made, not one, but two changes to their defensive unit, inserting Radek Martinek for A-Mac and Thomas Hickey for Matt Carkner.
Swapping Matt Carkner out of the line-up earned Capuano a plentiful amount of criticism from Isles die-hards: Why replace Carkner at this juncture, a player who added bulk and brawn to the Islanders’ blue-line? Why throw in Thomas Hickey, who appeared in his second NHL playoff game last night? (Did you notice how he was split inside-and-out by Sidney Crosby on the Penguins’ third goal?)
Well, Isles fans, I hate to say it, but the Islanders did not fall victim to their new defensive pairings. As much as we want to dig for a reason, the Islanders’ pain lies mostly in the IR. In Game Five, the Islanders missed Andrew MacDonald, and proved he’s not going to be easily replaced with this current roster at hand.
Let me take a moment by saying the following: the Islanders did not lose because Jack Capuano took Matt Carkner out of the line-up. Was the decision a bit puzzling? Sure, but it’s not like he replaced him with an AHL player. Thomas Hickey was one of the best defensemen for the Islanders during the entire 2013 season. The former 4th-overall draft choice finished his rookie season with a +9 rating. He was on the ice for the fewest amount of team goals allowed (24), despite averaging 16:51 per game. That’s key.
Andrew MacDonald has been a minutes-eater for the New York Islanders this season. Playing on the Islanders’ top-defensive pairing, MacDonald averaged a team-leading 23:21 of ice time per game during the 2013 regular season, and led the team with over 24 minutes of ice time before succumbing to injury in Game Four.
How do you replace minutes? It’s not easy, especially when the player you are trying to replace has been on the ice for only four Penguins’ goals at even strength.
Matt Carkner has played well for the Islanders, but with the Islanders’ workhorse out, would you really feel comfortable with either a) increasing Carkner’s minutes (currently averaging 9:59 per game), or b) giving MacDonald’s minutes to another defenseman on the roster? I wouldn’t be, and I don’t think Jack Capuano would be, which is why Jack opted to have two defensemen who could pick up the slack by playing more minutes than Carkner, but fewer than MacDonald.
And how about this underrated statistic: Andrew MacDonald was two blocked shots away from the NHL’s lead with 123, and still leads the Islanders in the postseason with 14. With Pittsburgh’s guns waiting to unload, who’s going to pick up the slack? Last night in Pittsburgh, Thomas Hickey led the defense with 4 blocked shots. Brian Strait followed with 2 blocked shots. Nobody else on the Islanders’ defense got in the way of another Pittsburgh shot in Game Five, and perhaps that can be one (not the only) of the reasons the Islanders lost. Pittsburgh has too many weapons to be given clear paths to Evgeni Nabokov, so if the Islanders aren’t going to get some bodies in the way of shooting lanes, pucks are going to be fished out from the back of the net.
And yes, as much as we have noticed Travis Hamonic getting under Evgeni Malkin’s skin, Andrew MacDonald has been shadowing Jarome Iginla (1 goal this series). His strong play during five-on-five is a reason why he sits at +0 against the Penguins’ offensive-power-house. It’s a reason why, despite their outrageous assists totals, Evgeni Malkin, Jarome Iginla, and James Neal have combined for only four goals in this Eastern Conference Quarterfinals series.
Andrew MacDonald has been good for the Islanders this postseason. He’s been as reliable as they come for this shoddy Islanders’ defensive unit. The Islanders, and their fans, realized the glaring issue after Game Five, but pointed fingers in the wrong direction. MacDonald’s injury is a huge blow to the New York Islanders, and unfortunately, there is not really much we can do about it. For Game Six, and hopefully Game Seven, all we can do is beLIeve.