March 5, 2012

Anders Nilsson gets First NHL Win, Shutout

Seeing as how Evgeni Nabokov has had some recent issues with playing in the second game of back-to-backs, the Islanders did the prudent thing and decided to go with their back-up goalie for Sunday's meeting against the New Jersey Devils.

That man was Anders Nilsson. Nilsson had only played in a grand total of two NHL games prior to this, and only started one. But a lot has happened since that point.

Nilsson has been in the midst of a fine AHL season. He's 15-6-2 with a 2.32 GAA and .925 SV%. For a first timer coming over from Sweden, that makes him quite the tandem with Kevin Poulin. On Sunday afternoon, Nilsson had the chance to show the Islander faithful why he was recently named the AHL's goaltender of the month for February while Poulin spent most of the month up with the big club.

Nilsson made 24 saves on the opposite side of Martin Brodeur. The Islanders only gave him one goal in support, but that was all he would need in the 1-0 victory. The lanky Swede would get his first NHL win and his first NHL shut out as well.

For Nilsson, that's quite an accomplishment especially when you consider that in general the Devils have been a higher scoring team than in past years. But it was a different Nilsson than the one we saw in November in Boston and Pittsburgh. Positionally, he was sound, and used his blocker a lot of times to steer pucks clear of the net. He had a few close calls and was bailed out a couple of times by the pipes behind him, but overall he did an excellent job of using his big frame to cover the net.

Kyle Okposo scored the only goal of the game off of a nice move in the slot. It was the type of power move we've wanted to see Okposo use more of when going around opposing defenders and it worked well here. It was a rather weak attempt for Brodeur to give up but Okposo surprised many by being able to get the shot off.

Defensively, the Islanders were much better and a lot more solid than they had been in recent weeks. They blocked a ton of shots (27) and positionally were in the right places at the right time. Communication was key for them, and there was always a defender standing in front of the net when the puck went either in the corner or behind the net. Too often this season that has not been the case, and it was great that the Islanders were able to have that down Sunday afternoon.

It's pretty clear with the Devils coming in there was more of an emphasis on defense. However, the other emphasis was on throwing the body around. The Islanders threw whatever weight they had at every Devils player, drew five penalties and controlled the puck for good portions of this game. They were unable to score on some of the great opportunities given to them, but were able to sustain momentum on those occasions as they beat the Devils to many loose pucks.

Prior to the game, Sean and I spoke about the week long series with the Devils on Sunday morning's show. While I didn't like the quirk in the NHL's scheduling, I looked at is as an opportunity for a fairly young team to experience a playoff atmosphere. With Sunday's loud sellout crowd, I got exactly what I wanted and it didn't disappoint. For this young team to win a hard fought difficult game against a solid team in an atmosphere like that is huge even though it may not help them make the playoffs at this stage.

They'll have a few days off now before travelling to Jersey for game two of this series on Thursday. Despite his performance here, I'd expect Nilsson to give way to Nabokov in net.

With the successful weekend, the Islanders pulled themselves up to five points behind the idle Winnipeg Jets. The 9th place Washington Capitals were on the receiving end of a 1-0 loss Sunday, leaving the Islanders four points back of them. In between is struggling (but rejuvinated) Toronto and surging Tampa Bay and Buffalo. That's quite the collection of teams to jump. There is no doubt that with three off days, the Islanders will slide back again making their job even tougher come Thursday.

For those who missed the show on Sunday morning, be sure to catch up by watching the recording of it here.


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