The New York Islanders went into this season with a hazy situation between the pipes. Evgeni Nabokov was coming off of a dreadful performance in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, and the team’s backup goaltending situation remained largely unaddressed, with only Kevin Poulin signing on for a one-year, two-way extension.
The 2013-14 would begin with the aforementioned scenario in the crease, and, while there was hope that Nabokov would pick up where he left off at the end of the regular season, sharp criticism was hurled Garth Snow‘s way for failing to amend, arguably, the organization’s biggest need.
Not even a quarter into the season, many skeptics’ doubts were quickly cemented. Through thirteen starts, Nabokov played to his postseason form. His save percentage dipped below .900 – currently .894%, which will not cut it for a starting goaltender. His goals-against-average ballooned to 3.24 – in each of his last seven games, he has allowed at least three goals.
Without a quality starting goaltender, the Islanders were doomed to miss the playoffs for the sixth time in seven seasons. Without solid play in between the pipes, Long Island’s hockey team, which has needed to score at least 3 goals to win games in over 90% of their games the past two seasons, was in for a long season. The goaltending issue has been a problem through the early stages of this season, preventing the Isles from winning close games on many nights; however, lost in the struggle were the sprinkled-in starts for Kevin Poulin, deemed career-AHL-goalie by the critics prior to this season.
It began in Chicago, where Poulin took on the defending Stanley Cup Chamopions. He lost 3-2, but made 24 saves, many of them big ones, to keep the Islanders close.
Then there was the debacle against the Philadelphia Flyers, although Poulin, like Nabby on many nights, was hung out to dry by the team’s defense.
Poulin would then receive the start against the Boston Bruins, holding them to one-goal for his first win of the season, and then his second-consecutive one-goal-allowed game versus the Carolina Hurricanes, which ended as a 1-0 loss. Both of these games counted as two of the three games this season in which the Isles allowed fewer than two goals – Nabby allowed one against the Phoenix Coyotes in the team’s third game of the season.
Many fans wanted Poulin to start the following game against Columbus, but Nabokov got the nod, allowing four goals on 28 shots. It was the last we have seen of Nabokov, a stretch that will continue tonight when the Islanders take on the Los Angeles Kings.
Tonight, Poulin gets his third consecutive start in goal – this one, following a 3-1 victory over the Nashville Predators, where he received first-star credentials after making 32 saves en route to the team’s fourth game with fewer than two goals allowed. He has earned it.
As Nabokov’s statistics have ballooned out of control, Poulin has found himself steady, with a .920 SV % and 2.35 GAA, through his six starts this season. Most importantly, his SV% at even strength is a strong .933% (10 goals allowed on 150 shots faced). In comparison, Nabokov holds a .908 SV % at even strength – a big difference for a team that has struggled at five-on-five play over the past few seasons. The numbers also make it hard to give Poulin the night off.
Capuano said it best earlier today: “Kevin’s just in a position now where the last few starts he’s looked pretty good. We’re gonna ride him.” They will need to. Goaltending has been holding the team back in a struggling Metropolitan Division. With teams beginning to pull away, the Islanders have to make sure they don’t fall behind early, which they began to following a four-game losing streak on the road this past week.
Now, it’s not easy to put all of our eggs into one basket with a young netminder; and, I’m positive we haven’t seen the last of Nabokov. For the time being, enjoy the ride. The Isles need to play the guy who’s going to keep the puck out of the team’s net. If he continues the way he has, though, then we’re looking at a changing of the guard.
Should Kevin Poulin be the Islanders starting goaltender?