Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner, USA Today Sports
Aside from the grouping of John Tavares and Matt Moulson, which was recently split up, the first pair of defenseman of Andrew MacDonald and Travis Hamonic is something we as Islander fans have grown accustomed to. Whether you like it or not, these two have been playing side-by-side for the last few seasons, and have matured and solidified their game right in front of our own eyes.
Set all opinions aside right now, because this is a fact: this tandem has worked tremendously in the past. Since the merciful end of the Millbury Era, the Islanders haven’t had a shut-down defensive group that was always effective. Sure, they had some good defenseman, but no pair that was screaming “PUT ME ON THE ICE!” with a minute remaining and a vacant net for the opposition.
Well it wasn’t exactly a find that worked right off the bat, but the tandem of MacDonald and Hamonic worked out to be a solid pairing.
It wasn’t always pretty in the developmental stages, as both players assimilated to NHL life, but since then the now veterans have shown their tenaciousness and defensive ability and emerged as the Islanders true top defensive pairing.
Perhaps the biggest part of the tandem’s emergence commenced last season. As we know, the Islanders were getting off on the right foot with a solid month in January before the team struggled mightily in February, largely in part due to a struggling defense. While there of course were there were others involved in the process of salvaging the Islanders’ season, Hamonic and MacDonald stepped up their games and proved that they were shut-down caliber. They held the Islanders together in the third period at multiple times, and the season undoubtedly would’ve been much uglier without them.
We saw how important the tandem of Hamonic and MacDonald were in the playoffs. In Game 4 of the Pittsburgh Series, MacDonald, doing what he does best and far superior to than most, goes down to block a shot. Only this time, he suffers a broken arm, and is done until next season. The Islanders follow Game 4 with two straight losses, one being a blow-out in Game 5, and ultimately lose the series in six games.
After a sad playoff loss, coming into this season, Islanders fans were already expecting the pairing of Hamonic and MacDonald on Opening Night. It was something that didn’t need to be said. The two players had become the best pairing on the team. Whether it was the aggression on defense or the gritty element of the game (probably a mixture of both), the law firm of Hamonic and MacDonald proved that they were the best on the team. It wasn’t just assumed they were the first pair on the defense, it was a no-brainer.
Fast forward to where we were are now, nine games into the season, and the tandem of Hamonic and MacDonald has not looked as it has in years prior. They’ve looked lack-luster. Their intensity we’ve grown accustomed to seeing on a nightly basis has been absent. Not only that, but the raw defensive quality between the two has been lacking, and it’s blatantly obvious that Hamonic and MacDonald aren’t looking good alongside one another.
To make matters worse the Islanders lost arguably their best defenseman, despite an early slump, Lubomir Visnovsky to a concussion suffered Saturday night against Carolina. He’s placed on the I.R., and he will be missing play for some time.
Speaking of that Carolina game however, despite the frustrating loss, I may be in the minority when I say this, but being at the game and watching intently, MacDonald and Hamonic looked good all game. They both had a nice collection of strong defensive plays on odd man rushes. In the second period, the Islanders coughed up the puck in the neutral zone, and the Hurricanes had a two-on-one in the offensive zone, only with Andrew MacDonald stopping them from being home free.
MacDonald makes a brilliant defensive play, challenging the Carolina forward, who is forced to take a mediocre shot, and Goaltender Evgeni Nabokov kicks the pads out and makes a save.
The same can be said for Hamonic as well. Again in the second period, another Carolina forward enters the zone one-on-one (I apologize for not having the name on me). Hamonic makes a nice play and ties the Carolina forward up, enabling Andrew MacDonald to swoop into the corner and handle the puck.
Now, this wasn’t just a little fluke of a play either. The two players made the defensive plays when they had to, and were also eager to join in on the forecheck and step up on the power play, which was a big scoring factor for the Islanders during the game.
So yes, it was a nice turnaround for the top pair of defense, but it’s just one moment in a season that hasn’t looked very good defensively. Now with Visnovsky down and out, Coach Capuano may very well think that a line-change is necessary to separate the depth on defense. We’ve seen it in the past, only with the forwards, stacking all of your main talents on one line leads to most of the game relying on a few players. It eliminates the team effort, and makes it solely responsible for two or three individuals to win the game for the Islanders.
So now begs the question. Does Capuano follow up with the same defensive pairings after a good game by Hamonic and MacDonald? Or does he split the two up to seperate depth amidst the absence of Visnovsky.
Oh, the decisions one must make.