April 7, 2013

Martin, Isles Make it Three Straight at Home to Continue Playoff Push; NYI FYI Sunday at 11 AM

The Islanders did a nice job of getting a point in Washington to keep pace in the playoff race. If they are going to drop games, getting points out of them is really the only way they can go about business right now.

But what that mini-comeback in Washington did, combined with the Rangers SO loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins the day after, was rejuvenate the Islander fanbase in a big way as the team remained very much in it heading into Saturday nights home match-up with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The Islanders sold out the game, and the crowd was the loudest we heard in years. The fans have been dying for a moment like this, and the players have been delivering. They want it just as bad. All 16,170 people who showed up were treated to another strong Isles win, their 6th in their past eight games (6-1-1).

Unlike the game in Washington, this one had a good pace to start and the Isles skated well, doing a nice job of keeping up with a rejuvenated Tampa Bay team. Newcomer Ben Bishop, who's been solid at every level despite bouncing around a lot, had a strong debut with the Lightning in a 45 save shutout his previous game so the Isles had their work cut out for them.

But the Isles cycled well, and seemed to have studied Bishop heading into the game. Michael Grabner opened the scoring for the Isles, going glove side high on a shot which is where you want to go on the big netminder. We can thank Nate Thompson for turning the puck over to John Tavares here, and Grabner found the loose puck in what's pretty much become his wheelhouse.

The Isles fell asleep a bit in the second period, and seemed a tad lethargic. The Lightning were able to tie the game on a great cycling play after the Isles turned the puck over and had a hard time of clearing the zone. Vinny Lecavalier went beheind the net, and had two Isles chasing him and everyone else looking in his direction - except for Richard Panik who was available to receive a behind-the-back pass from Lecavalier and put the puck into an empty net to make the game even.

The other game plan on a big netminder like Bishop is to get traffic in front of him. You need as many distractions as possible. This came to fruition on the Isles second goal, just minutes after Panik scored.

Kyle Okposo cycled the puck pretty much by himself on a great play. Originally getting a pass from Travis Hamonic, Okposo came in for a shot that was stopped, picked up his own rebound, skated around the net and reset the play. It was reminiscent of the Jason Blake days on Long Island but with better stick handling. Okposo dangled through Lightning defenders, making two or three nice moves before throwing the puck towards the front of the net where Josh Bailey had established position. Bailey was able to corral the puck and kick it to his stick to push the puck into a wide open net.

After some scrambling led to the Lightning being able to tie the game in the third, with Evgeni Nabokov stickless and the Isles unable to get the puck away, they settled down for the remainder of the period. The gameplan of standing in front of Bishop worked again in a big way, as the Isles recent trend of late-game heroics came through.

After forcing a turnover in the defensive zone, Casey Cizikas broke out with the puck, passing it to Matt Martin. From that point, Cizikas flew up ice with Martin and cut to the net, while Martin switched directions at the blueline. In a sport where timing is everything, Cizikas couldn't have played his part any better. Martin's shot was unseen by all, and Bishop was left to just throw his hands up looking at his defensive coverage as Martin celebrated his tie breaking goal in the corner.

Some unsung heroes for the Isles, apart from the goal scorers? Jesse Joensuu, who played his first game of the season, got just under 11 minutes of ice time and had eight shots on net, while driving to it countless times and using his body to control pucks behind the net and along the boards. If he continues to play like this, it's an element the Islanders need. I'm not sure what's gone on with him, but with that vast improvement thanks to playing a year in Europe, Joensuu is built for playoff style hockey.

The other guy who was excellent was Andrew MacDonald, who frustrated Steven Stamkos all night and had his stick always in the right place at the right time, making several key deflections and even helping out Nabokov on his biggest save sequence of the evening. Kudos to MacDonald for playing exponentially better than he was earlier in the year and being a key contributor to this turn around.

The loss is a blow to the Lightning's faint playoff hopes, despite the fact they were feeling pumped up after the last few wins with their new coach and goaltender.

The Islanders, meanwhile, made-up for losing out on a point in Washington, and got some help in the form of a Devils regulation loss to the Maple Leafs and a Flyers regulation loss to the Jets.

The win puts the Isles in 8th, with the Rangers having the same amount of points in one less game in 7th. Winnipeg is two points behind, the Devils three points and the Flyers are a comfortable five points out heading into Tuesday's match-up with them.

The energy in the building was something we haven't seen in a while. But the Isles have successfully made believers into all of us with this stretch. It seems as though the worm is turning, and at the very least this team has taken a huge step forward this season, playoffs or not. You have to give a lot of credit to these guys for going against the grain, and making many look foolish these days, including myself and Sean for our silly predictions week-to-week. But we both love to be wrong, as we always say.

The fact that the fans finally showed up during the playoff race says a lot, as it seems for the past several weeks it's been a tough sell. But the battle of the three New York area teams seems to have been just what the doctor ordered to get people excited. And who knows, maybe it's what the rivalries need as well. Can you imagine the atmosphere in next Saturday's Isles-Rangers game if this keeps up?

The Isles have finally figured out how to play at home and put on a show for a sold out crowd. Can they figure out a way to keep this up and get to the playoffs?

NYI FYI Sunday: After a few weeks of odd times, we will be returning to our regular time slot at 11 AM. Be sure to tune in as we discuss the week that was for the Islanders and the rest of the NHL with playoff races in full force and the trade deadline now safely behind us.

You can catch us live by looking at the uStream feed via our home page. For those unable to watch live, be sure to catch the podcast when it becomes available.


- Chris

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