With back-to-back victories over the Senators and Bruins, The Islanders have won two in a row for the first time this season. What’s the next step? Where do they go from here?
The immediate future involves a four-game road swing, where the team sports a 3-2-0 record. First up is the Washington Capitals (7-7-0, 8th in the East) on Tuesday, followed by the Carolina Huricanes (4-7-3, 11th in the East) on Thursday. They square off against the Columbus Blue Jackets (5-8-0, 12th in the East) on Saturday, and then it’s off to Montreal to face the Canadiens (8-7-0, 6th in the East) on Sunday. Columbus downed them in a shootout 3-2 on Oct 5; Carolina got by them 4-3 on October 19. These will be the first matchups of the year against the Capitals and Canadiens.
None of these games – at least on paper – poses an insurmountable threat. Of the four, only Washington with two straight wins is not currently on a losing streak. Montreal has lost their last two games; Columbus has lost three in a row; and Carolina has dropped a whopping five straight.
One of the key points is to maintain the level of intensity that saw them rebound from a two-goal deficit against the Sens to go on to a shootout win, and which saw them control the Bruins for much of their 3-1 victory. They have the firepower – and the ability to overpower – to beat all of these teams. In terms of offensive output, Montreal and Washington have similar goal totals; Columbus and Carolina aren’t even close. On the defensive side, however, all but Carolina have allowed fewer goals.
In terms of personnel, the roster has been static the past couple of games, with good results. The top line of Thomas Vanek, John Tavares and Kyle Okposo is showing early signs of strong, long-term chemistry, while newcomers such as Cal Clutterbuck and Peter Regin are carving out their own niches as well. Meanwhile the workhorses like Casey Cizikas, Matt Martin and others keep clicking along with unsung efficiency. At least among the forwards there is little reason to think much will change in terms of who plays, and with whom, for the foreseeable future.
The blueline remains a point of contention for many, although as a unit they are showing signs of meshing into cohesive pairings that work. It’s not as smooth as silk and far from set in stone, but baby steps forward are still a positive.
Of all the roster-related questions, perhaps the most pressing is the goaltending situation. Kevin Poulin, for whom big wins have been somewhat few and far between historically, is coming off an encouragingly strong showing against Boston. Do they follow up with Poulin against the Capitals, or bring him along slowly, avoiding throwing him into situations of back to back starts for a while? The numbers seem to suggest returning to Nabokov against Washington. Since joining the Isles Nabokov has a 3-0-3 record vs Washington, while Poulin has yet to face them. Conversely, Poulin has a 2-1 career record against the Hurricanes, who since 2011-12 hold a 0-3-1 record over the Isles. Given his personal record, coupled with the Canes’ current free-fall in the standings, conventional wisdom suggests the team may want to avoid back to back games for Poulin at this point, and save him for a strong showing against Carolina.
The next four games may begin to tell the tale of the direction in which the Isles, in their current incarnation, will go moving forward. A strong showing and a return home next week with a winning record will be a much-needed shot in the arm for the team.