New York Islanders : What Has Changed?

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The New York Islanders have experienced somewhat of a rebirth over their last ten games of the 2013-14 National Hockey League season.

After a brutal stretch that saw the team lose 14 of 17 games between November 12 and December 17, they have now won 8 of 11 starting with a 5-3 victory over the New York Rangers on December 20 at Madison Square Garden.

With the Stadium Series game between those same two teams at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx less than four weeks away, they could not have picked a better time to ramp up their game and start collecting two points per outing.

In the midst of the latest revival, there have been no calls to fire head coach Jack Capuano, string Garth Snow up by his toenails or brandish Charles Wang to an underground bunker for an Alex Rodriguez type social media imposed suspension. That is what winning does to a fickle fanbase, although it must be noted, one that is no different from any other team in the National Hockey League.

So what has changed for New York that has allowed them to regain some of their identity so missing for the early part of this season when they were hovering just above the Buffalo Sabres for the worst team in the entire league? What has led them to spirited and exciting victories over quality opponents such as the Rangers, Detroit Red Wings, Boston Bruins, defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks and most recently, the Colorado Avalanche?

Let’s take a look at what are my main reasons for the improved play that has helped to extinguish (for the time being, at least) the social media fire that was raging at a five alarm pace.

1. The inspirational play of captain John Tavares

There were some questions early on, from myself included, about the weight that leading this franchise would have on Tavares’ shoulders as we entered the season. And his play through the early part of the season did nothing to dispel that notion.

Tavares was still posting point per game numbers (4-9-13 in 12 October games, 7-10-17 in 15 November games) but was hardly a difference maker on many of those nights. Superstars have to be noticed and too often, Tavares was as insignificant as the teams results, stats be damned.

But then something changed. Maybe it was the chemistry finally reaching a fever peak with new linemate Thomas Vanek. Maybe the adjustment to being a leader in the clubhouse had finally taken hold, even if it took longer than we would have liked it to. Or perhaps it was just taking more personal responsibility for the team’s troubles and literally putting them on his shoulders ,which he has done over the course of his last 18 games.

At a remarkable 9-15-24 over those aforementioned 18 and more specifically, 14 of those points coming in his last 6 games, Tavares has found his offensive groove and is now the most noticeable player in a blue and orange jersey on most, if not all, nights. The surge has brought him all the way up to a tie for second in the entire league in scoring with 54 points, trailing only Sidney Crosby.

But John himself would tell you, it’s not about the stats. He could care less whether he finishes 1st, 2nd or 20th in the league in scoring. Team results are all that matter to him and his tone post-game in the locker room makes us all a witness to the true leadership that lies within him.

It will serve this organization for a long time to come and Islanders fans should consider themselves very lucky.

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2. A return to a team commitment on defense

In the 11 game stretch, the Islanders have allowed only 29 goals (2.63) which is almost a goal per game difference from their moribund early season defensive efforts.

We all know Andrew MacDonald, even for his overwork and blatant misuse, leads the league in blocked shots with approximately 1,267 (I might have stretched that number just a bit but you get the point) but what we have witnessed goes past just looking at plain vanilla statistics and letting your eyes do the talking (or typing).

Shane Blackburn, on the Dump & Chase Podcast, has alluded to the ‘eye test’ several times during our broadcasts and there are times when it definitely takes precedence over anything else. This is one of those times.

During the brutal 17 game stretch, what we saw were tremendous gaps in the neutral zone and teams able to attack the Islanders with tremendous speed as they transitioned from defense to offense. The forwards were either too lazy, too incompetent or just did not give a hoot, to worry about coming back with vigor to support a young and relatively inexperienced blueline that was too often left out to dry.

That has all changed. Calvin de Haan has played superb hockey over his last 12 games to stabilize the defense and invite new hope that this much talked about farm system of blueliners coming up will indeed have the promise so many have spoken about. Paired lately with Travis Hamonic, it is a unit that Capuano has not hesitated to use late in games with New York trying to close out contests.

Matt Donovan has returned for his second stint with the club and finally saw real power play time in last night’s victory in Colorado, lending hope that this will be more than just a quick look and return to Bridgeport for the 23 year old Oklahoma native.

More importantly however has been the defensive play of the forwards.  What we see now is a constant effort and willing commitment to rush back into the defensive zone, cover gaps in the slot and win puck battles on the wall in support of their defensive teammates. The neutral zone has become the place where opponent rushes now die instead of feeding like bacteria in humidity. Turnovers leading to scoring chances are occurring much more going the right way, instead of the wrong one.

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3. The re-emergence of the fourth line

So much of the Islanders run to the playoffs last season was fueled by the play of the fourth line of Casey Cizikas, Matt Martin and Colin McDonald.

Too often this season however, the line was lacking their usual crash and bang style and ended up losing way too many battles on the boards and in the corners.

Even though Martin leads the league in perhaps its most arbitrary statistic, hits, the line failed to change games with their physical style, which in the past has lead to wearing out opponents defensemen.

Art Staple made such an observation when he appeared on the podcast and turned out to be absolutely correct.

Since the McDonald benching, he has come back to play with so much more energy while Cizikas has found a little offense to his usual style of play, chipping in with 5 goals on the season, after scoring 6 in 45 games last season. Martin continues to bash with the best of them and has engaged in some fisticuffs (3 times in November and 3 more in December) even with fighting numbers around the league trending sharply down.

Most important is that the line has rediscovered their identity and with it, the club has followed suit. This is not a team that can not play individualistic hockey and hope to win games. Everyone has to give maximum effort and provide ample support for the Islanders to come away with two points on most nights.

And this line is back to leading by example.

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4. The infusion of youth

They have not blown anyone away on the scoresheet just yet but the youth that was injected into the Islanders lineup has done more than anyone could have imagined.

Previously we talked about de Haan and his importance in stabilizing the defense with the unfortunate injury to Lubomir Visnovsky. He has 4 points in his last 3 games as his offensive game is starting to catch up with his cool and calm demeanor when in his own zone.

Ryan Strome was called up to the Islanders on December 11 and the team has gone 8-3-1-1 since his arrival. He finally scored the first goal of his NHL career on the power play against the Dallas Stars. His difference has been since moving to center however on the 3rd line with Michael Grabner and Cal Clutterbuck. Every team needs offensive depth to survive at this level and now New York truly has 3 lines that could put the puck in the net.

Brock Nelson made the team out of training camp and was slow to adjust in all three zones early on. But he has certainly found his groove on the wing with Frans Nielsen and Josh Bailey with the teams second unit. He has scored goals in two of his last three games, including a spectacular game tying effort against Colorado on Friday night. Swiping the puck into the corner while on his back, keeping the play alive, he then rose and made a b-line for the slot, before converting a snap shot that changed all the momentum and led the Islanders to victory.

Donovan has dressed in two of the last three games for New York and has looked more comfortable, leading the team in Corsi and Fenwick in his first game and recovering nicely in his second after being victimized by Nathan McKinnon on a second period goal. He even saw 2:04 of power play time and was on the ice in the final minute.

Lastly, one cannot overlook the importance of goaltender Kevin Poulin. Often subjected to long stretches on the bench, he has won four straight starts for the first time in his young career and has looked at times spectacular. Only 23 years old and getting his first extended look at NHL hockey, one has to be encouraged at both the mental toughness and physical prowess that Poulin has shown this year.

Maybe, just maybe, Garth Snow won’t have to look for that goaltender in the 2014 off-season after all.

There is still a lot of hockey left to play but the reality is that the early season swoon will more than likely not allow the Islanders to crawl back into the playoff picture. They would have to win almost 4 out of every 5 over the duration, a pace that some of the league best teams have a hard time producing. Not to mention doing tons of scoreboard watching.

But that does not mean they cannot give us inspired, gritty Islanders hockey that we have come to respect and admire. After all, we kept hearing about how good the Islanders would be soon and for a long time ahead due to their ridiculously deep farm system. Maybe we are just starting to see the start of something special to hang our hat on entering 2014-15.

Could the last season at Nassau Coliseum on Hempstead Turnpike be the one that changes this organizations direction for the foreseeable future?

Lately, the eye-test might just be saying yes.