The New York Islanders were believed to have taken the next step after last year’s playoff appearance against the Pittsburgh Penguins even though they were eliminated in six games.
If you were to speak to the players at training camp, you would have heard them all in unison proclaiming they have now learned what it takes to compete each night and what it takes to return to the post-season and make even more noise than they did in May of 2013.
After eleven games, the message seems to have been lost in what can only be considered a season of consistently inconsistent play.
Now, the purpose here is to not cause panic or rally the troops who are too eager on social media to call for immediate changes or even worse, a coaching change. It is merely to analyze just what went wrong on another Saturday night at the Nassau Coliseum in front of 13,600 fans. There are a whopping 71 games left to play and with the Eastern Conference as stuck together as a package of Halloween ‘peeps’ candy, certainly not all is lost as some might believe.
The frustration is building among the players as well. As they exited the ice after the 5-2 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday night, Jack Capuano seemed especially perturbed as he hurried into his office. Kyle Okposo was seen muttering expletives to himself and the culmination of the night was heard in the tone set by John Tavares and Andrew MacDonald as they talked to the media in another somber dressing room.
“We get back to work on Monday and we have to push each other. We have to bear down and not quit. There is a lot of hockey left” the Islanders captain noted in front of the media throng. “We have to keep being on each other to fix these mistakes and build the consistency needed to play game to game. We are sloppy in our own end, winning battles and in front of our own end.”
What is interesting is the backlash against Islanders goaltenders Evgeni Nabokov and Kevin Poulin for the teams struggles. Tavares addressed that briefly as well. “We are giving teams too much in the neutral zone, allowing them to attack with too much speed. We have not made it easy on our goaltenders, facing 30+ shots per night. We need to be better away from the puck”.
Analyzing the goals scored last night against Poulin, one can make the below assumptions, backing up what Tavares said….
Goal against 1 : Deflects off stick of defenseman Travis Hamonic
Goal against 2 : Flyers forward Jacob Voracek blows by Josh Bailey in the neutral zone after Matt Donovan stepped up to intercept the pass. Then Matt Carkner was not much help, allowing the inside move. Isles had support for Donovan’s gamble.
Goal against 3 : Bailey again beaten in the neutral zone and Carkner fails to stay on his side for the criss-cross down low. To compound matters, Josh was also slow to get back in his own zone to provide support.
Those goals cannot be blamed on the deficiencies of Kevin Poulin, who is playing once about every 1 1/2 to 2 weeks at this point, but more on a collective defensive effort that is just not there for New York at the present time. Forwards are not working hard enough to back check and provide support for a beleaguered defense who is young, still learning their way and under-sized. Not to mention missing the veteran leadership of Lubomir Visnovsky, who is not any closer to returning, having still not done any physical activity at all.
Head coach Jack Capuano, you would think, might be ready to blow a head gasket but it does not seem that way from his post-game press conference. Of course, we are not privy to what he says to the team privately, so take this with a grain of salt.
“I thought in the first period we had a pretty good start. We could not bury our chances and made some mistakes. It’s not consistency with our team, its consistency collectively. I don’t care about goals and stats, you have to play hard. We can’t be losing some of the battles we lost tonight. Work ethic, grit and determination has to be there and I did not see that out of some guys tonight” Capuano noted.
“We did make some mistakes on the back end but they played hard against a good team. Same six D had to play again back to back with our injuries and they grinded it out there for a while and did a good job.” Capuano commented on the play of the defensive unit. “We are a .500 hockey club and we cannot be satisfied with where we are. For me, it’s disappointing that some guys did not play with the urgency that was needed”.
Whether it’s protecting his young team and an unwillingness to air out his frustrations to the media, I cannot believe the Capuano that we see in the press room post-game is the same one the team sees in the locker room.
Defensively, there is no help coming. Calvin Dehaan,coming off a year in which he played only 3 games and seriously trailed off in training camp, is not NHL ready. Andrey Pedan is too raw and still learning the AHL game and Griffin Reinhart is back in the WHL and unavailable. Radek Martinek can hardly be considered a savior, even given his experience with the system and organization.
The goaltending has not been the problem. The collective team defense has. And last I checked, there are six players on the ice, not one.
Don’t call for Ryan Strome, Anders Lee, Brock Nelson or any other forward who could make this team more dangerous offensively. That is not the priority need right now. You need to learn to win defensively first so you can survive those shoot-out battles with the higher octane clubs.
Which leaves us exactly where we are. A .500 hockey team. Should we be better? Yes. Are we better? Debatable.
At the very least, the next 9 games will tell us more of what we long to know. That will be the quarter pole mark of the marathon. Will we be in the front half of the pack? Or lagging behind at a water station still trying to catch our breath?