En Fuego….Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Florida Panthers (13-22-6, 6-12-1 road)
7pm, Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum
New York Islanders (21-16-5, 9-11-3 home)
Middletown, N. J. – ‘Playoffs? Did you say playoffs? Playoffs?’ We have all heard the now infamous clip over and over again of Jim Mora discussing his team’s chances of making the NFL postseason. The Islanders chances since 2007 have never been more real as they storm towards the finish line of the 2013 NHL regular season.
A big week is ahead as New York takes an 8-1-2 run into tonight’s game against the struggling Florida Panthers at Nassau Coliseum. On February 28, after a 5-4 overtime loss in Toronto, the Isles sat at 8-11-2 and some wondered if this was just more of the same old story on Long Island. Team continues its rebuild but cannot seem to move up in the standings. The entire hockey world, media and fans alike, don’t even give them a second thought, opponents looking at them on the schedule as a blip on their radar as they themselves steam towards the postseason.
All of a sudden, something clicked. Was it a motivational speech given in the locker room by one of the veteran leadership? A tongue lashing by the coaching staff? Words from the general manager and/or owner? A 90 minute skating practice with no pucks? Nobody might ever know the answer to that question but the results on the ice spoke to a monumental shift in the entire hockey club.
Since that disappointing loss, in which the Isles took a 4-2 lead into the third period, the team is 13-5-3, capturing 29 of a possible 42 points (69%). It has put them in a position with two weeks remaining where they control their own destiny. No scoreboard watching, hoping that teams above them go into a slump and start losing, no backing in.
The turnaround can be attributed to two major factors, secondary scoring and a commitment to team defense. The fantastic play of Frans Nielsen, Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey has allowed the Isles to survive with lackluster play from their top unit featuring John Tavares. Speculation has been rampant as to what could be ailing the Isles young budding superstar ranging from fatigue to a mild injury being hidden by the club. Even Brad Boyes has felt the wrath of Islander nation as being the contributing factor. The feeling here at eyes is this…Nobody puts more pressure on himself than John. And he looks to be suffering from the effects of trying to do too much in this crucial moment in the teams rebuild. As long as he settles down and accepts the reality that he does not have to do everything offensively anymore he will be just fine. If I was a betting man, I would lay it on the line for JT to have a big final six games heading into a probable post season.
Moving back to the impressive defense lately, the Isles have outscored their opponents over the aforementioned 21 game stretch 61-48 allowing only 2.28 goals per game. Andrew MacDonald continues his recent resurgence and currently leads the league in blocked shots. Travis Hamonic continues to show maturity and toughness beyond his years and Lubomir Visnovsky has been a gift in transition and signed a two year extension to reward his puck moving prowess. If you shorten up the raw data set even further, the Isles have allowed a remarkable 16 goals over their last 11 games (1.45 GAA). Absolutely unbelievable and the credit goes from the coaching staff all the way to the players themselves.
No Roar In These Panthers
The Panthers have clearly struggled this season, coming in 9 games below .500. With all their free agent acquisitions over the last two seasons much more was expected out of these cats and all they have done is proceed to lay lazily in the weeds waiting for someone to bring them a meal. It does not mean however that this game is a walk through the forest for the Islanders without any fear or trepidation. Any team in the National Hockey League is more than capable of putting up an exemplary performance and playing well above the level of their record. The old adage of a ‘trap game’ is best on display here. If the Isles get caught looking ahead to Toronto on Thursday or even Winnipeg on Saturday, this could be a long night. They have to come out with the same passion and energy they have been showing over the last 21 games and put this team to bed, preferably early. Florida, when allowing the opposing team to score first, is 3-19-4 and they are an even worse 2-18-3 when trailing after the first period. To look at their goals for versus goals against differential by period is an even more telling story of getting the jump on them being so vital. -21 in the first followed by -18 in the second. They have the 7th ranked power play in the league remarkably but are last in penalty killing.
Social Media Buzz
It seems like every day, the Isles get more and more social media buzz on Twitter and Facebook. Below we examine some of the best from today.
- Birthday shout to Kyle Okposo who turns 25 today.
- Brian Strait and Joe Finley were activated off injured reserve and with no limits are officially back on the active roster.
- Matt Martin leads the league in hits with 212. His 82 game pace of 414 would break his own NHL record from last season of 374.
- Interesting stat of the day : The Islanders are 9-3-3 when A-Mac leads the team in ice time yet 5-10-0 when captain Mark Streit does.
The Coliseum is expected to be very close to a sellout tonight. For a Tuesday night in Uniondale against the Panthers, that should make any Islanders fan, whether attending or not, very happy. It shows people are starting to pay attention and realize just how special this group has become, regardless of the final outcome this season. For those that have the privilege of sitting in LIE and Meadowbrook Parkway traffic, let your voice be heard. Stand up and give these boys the sendoff to their regular season road trip that they deserve. I would expect nothing less than two minutes of pure fan love being sent from the rafters to the players on the ice. Not only will they appreciate it, it is what they deserve.
Prediction: Islanders 4, Panthers 1
Tonight’s pregame melody (in the hub, right side of home page) comes to you from our newest werdsmith, senior staff writer Mike Willhoft. Parabola by Tool. Listen to the lyrics as I believe as Islanders fans, we can all relate.
Don’t forget to check in daily every morning for ‘Top Shelf’ where you just might be featured in our ‘Twitter-Sphere’ section. Here is our piece from this morning so you can see what we mean.
Look for a great piece tomorrow evening on what it is like to be a fan (especially from an Isles perspective) from Willhoft.