Hockey from the Blind Side, Blind Observations at Thanksgiving on the Isles

The New York Islanders came back from a 2-0 deficit last night in Tampa to defeat the Lightning 3-2 on a power play goal by John Tavares with 3:36 left in the game. Josh Bailey also scored on the power play, and Cal Clutterbuck tied the game up in the 2nd period for the Isles. Unlike the previous evening against the Panthers in which the Islanders came back, but lost in the shootout, they managed to earn the 2 points and get 3 out of 4 on the mini road trip to the sunshine state.

Thanksgiving seems to fall around the quarter mark of the NHL season, so many places, including, seem to “review” the league and how teams are doing at this time of the year. Of course, some teams, like the Montreal Canadians and Dallas Stars are doing surprisingly well, while others, such as the Anaheim Ducks and Columbus Blue Jackets, have started off disappointingly so far.

The New York Islanders have played 24 games at this stage and have compiled a 12-8-4 record for 28 points and a 6th place position in the Eastern Conference standings and 4th place in the Metro Division. It has been a rather inconsistent season with stretches of solid play fans have expected and other spans of sloppy and uninspired play. To me, though I am surely happy they are currently in the playoff picture, I personally expected them to be doing a bit better than they currently are. In fact, I think they are good enough to be among the top 5 teams in the NHL based on the play of the rest of the league.

For those who have read my contributions here at Isles Talk over the years, I often dwell on the importance of the C word, Consistency, when it comes to success in the NHL. Whether this is within a sixty minute game itself, or a team’s overall play, the more consistently well a team can demonstrate, the more likely they will make the playoffs and propel themselves beyond the first round.

I don’t think we’ve seen consistent play from the Islanders for long stretches. They are a better team then 12-8-4, and I don’t think they have demonstrated this fact on many nights. The “good news” is they have played well enough to win games they would have lost just two seasons ago, but they also have lost other games they would have won last season.

Offensive spark, to me, has been a major ingredient that has been missing on many nights. There have been too many nights in which the cycle has not been consistently established from the successful forechecking efforts and there just isn’t the kind of magical spark we often saw last season. Whether it was, for example, the effects of leftover turkey last night or not, I honestly found myself nearly dozing off a few times during the game last night. Granted that it was an overall sloppily played game by both teams, the Islander offense really was not impressive at times and they were plain lucky Thomas Greiss came to play, especially in the third period.

In my opinion, the #1 line has not been a consistently dominating presence. JT is having a point a game season and Kyle Okposo has put up 19 points in 24 games, but it just seems like we see flashes of greatness with Brock Nelson or Anders Lee or Ryan Strome playing with Tavares, but nothing that has kept going for more than a few games at a time.

Frans Nielsen is showing how a healthy Frans Nielsen can play, as he has 18 points with 9 goals, but beyond him, the secondary scoring has not been a threatening presence in the way we saw last season. I don’t think Anders Lee, Josh Bailey, Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolay Kulemin nor Ryan Strome have shown the kind of offensive potential they are all capable of producing, and while Cal Clutterbuck has netted 5 goals, the fourth line can certainly put up a few more points as well.

You can’t ask much more of Jaroslav Halak or Thomas Greiss in the goaltending department. Despite Halak’s shootout performance on Friday against Florida and his first period against the Canadians last Friday, he has been a solid #1 goaltender. Of course, what more can you say about Thomas Greiss, as he has been far more than I certainly expected.

On the same note, the defense has played fairly well most of the season. There have been some bad plays and untimely moments of coughing up pucks, but I don’t think it has been a case of the back line letting the team down. Yes, I know Brian Strait and Marek Zidlicky are often singled out for their mistakes, and I am one of those guys who’d like to see Ryan Pulock patrolling the point on the power play, but that is beside the point. Only from the offensive output side of the defense do I have any complaints, as they are not getting the point production from Nick Leddy, in particular. I don’t think the Isles use their points enough on the power play, which, to me, is one of the reasons why the power play has suffered over the last dozen or so games until last night.

The afore mentioned power play started off on fire, but has been quite disappointing over the last 10 plus games. There is too much passing and that seeming need to make the “perfect play” that never develops. In other words, there isn’t enough pressure being put on the other team’s PK units, despite some really good stretches of puck movement because the “finishing” play to score the goal never materializes.

The PK has improved over last season, but has had its moments of inconsistency as well. Still, I like the aggressive approach that has been used, and I think that Frans Nielsen and Cal Clutterbuck, in particular, have done quite well killing penalties.

So, to sum things up in a nut shell and to, perhaps, simplify things and sum it up, I think the lack of consistent scoring and a missing edge or spark to their play have been the two most “glaring” reasons for a somewhat “lacking” start to the season. I was glad to see them play with a lot more fire and physicality on Wednesday in their 3-1 win over the Flyers, and there were moments last night in which I was happy that they seemed to come to play with a bit more “snarl” in their game. I am, as I have often said, an “old school” hockey fan, and regardless of the way the NHL has seemed to want to package my game with bows and ribbons for a wider consumer market, I still believe in the old hockey adage, “hit or be hit”. Hockey is a physical game, and hitting and the occasional fight are and Should be a part of the sport.

If we are looking at “grading” the team at the quarter post, I’d give the Isles a C Plus overall. Unfortunately, with the success of last season, expectations are much higher in me, and I don’t think this team has met those expectations nor hit anything close to their stride yet. The goaltending and defense are fine, but we need consistent scoring and balanced scoring, as well as 60 minutes of “desperation”, physical hockey from this team. The Isles are not a “surprise” to anyone any more, and we don’t have nights of teams starting their backup goaltenders when they face the Islanders. Nevertheless, I believe the Islanders have a group of winners in the locker room, and they can meet the challenges and expectations if they collectively put it all together. That is why the NHL plays 82 games, so there is a lot of hockey still yet to be played.


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