May 6, 2013

Pens Take Game 3 over Isles in OT with Strong Powerplay

If there was ever a time for the New York Islanders to make a statement that they were relevant to the NHL again, doing so Sunday on national TV was the perfect forum to do so. And overall, the Islanders made their fans proud and really for the first time in a while turned heads.

You really have to look no further than what’s being said by every analyst from one coast to another regarding the penalty assessed to Brian Strait in overtime for the way he played Sidney Crosby peeling off of the side boards.

A penalty in October. Not in overtime in the playoffs.

The Penguins scored on the resulting powerplay, bringing a great deal of frustration to the Islanders, their fans, and anyone out there actively rooting against the Pens in this series (which I’m pretty sure is 95% of all other fanbases at this point).

The Islanders let a fast start get away from them, allowing the Penguins to get back into this game with some undisciplined play, started off by Mark Streit and Travis Hamonic in what were both fair calls. As mentioned in the last post, you CANNOT let this team get the man advantage with the guys they put out there. In a flash, the energy was sucked away for a spell and that came to a head when Pascal Dupuis buried a nice cross ice pass from Crosby, with John Tavares unable to do enough to disturb Dupuis, giving the Penguins a 3-2 lead heading into the first intermission.

You have to give all the credit to the world though to this Islander team, who battled and fought their way through even after giving up a goal to Douglas Murray to give the Pens the 4-2 advantage. It left many of us in the building wondering if the Islanders had yet another game of storming back against these guys in them, and they did.

Feeding off energy from one another and the crowd the Isles busted through, and while on a penalty kill Frans Nielsen somehow recovered a puck after losing it off his stick, turning it around and firing it up ice to a streaking Kyle Okposo. It’s hard to put into words what exactly Okposo does here, but the eruption of the crowd after scoring on the breakaway is probably the best way to put it. I’ll never know how he didn’t lose that puck in his skates and was able contort his body that way.

Nassau Coliseum was a home again, and this was accentuated by John Tavares, the face resulting from 20 years of struggling to find an identity and a string of consistent, good play. It was Tavares who scored the goal that tied the game, leaving the building with nothing to do other than chant “M-V-P.”

The Islanders had a huge opportunity on the powerplay not long after that, but were unable to capitalize. That’s becoming an alarming trend especially when you are trying to take down a team as tough as Pittsburgh.

The Islanders had their chances in the overtime too, but they missed a couple of opportunities and in some cases the Pens got away with cheap shots that left them unable to bury those chances.

Overall, the game wasn’t the best officiated, but it wasn’t the worst either. In the interest of fairness, from where my seats were there were several instances where Isles’ defensemen interfered with Pens players on the boards (blatant holding), just feet in front of the refs that went uncalled. So it goes both ways.

But as mentioned earlier, that’s a pretty tacky call in overtime for two teams that were playing their hearts out.

It was a solid hockey game all around, and for the second straight game the Islanders outworked and outplayed the opponent (well, for most of two games). They can beat this team but need to be a little more disciplined.

It was not a banner game for Strait, and I’m still not opposed to benching him in the next game. He had some solid moments and was key in Game 2, however Crosby is a very tough match-up for him and you need a better effort with Hamonic’s hands full of Evgeni Malkin. Radek Martinek has done this before, guarded against Crosby for the Isles and would be my choice for Game 4 in place of Strait who’s clearly not at 100% still.

It’s very hard to find anything negative here aside from the discipline, a shaky defensive play here and there and goaltending.

The latter deserves it own category as Evgeni Nabokov has struggled mightily this series. It’s tough to put full blame here and go all-out declaring this was why San Jose always choked but let’s be honest with ourselves. They’re playing a Penguins team that’s got two of the best three players in the league and a top-5 defenseman in the league on their man advantage. If you continue to give them these chances it won’t matter who is in the net.

Bottom line: Nabokov has given up some softies, and that has to change. In the past month we’ve some of the craziest saves from him, and almost one in every game. But that’s been absent through the first three games against the Pens here.

The forwards all came to play and all executed their roles pretty well. The most alarming however is Matt Moulson, who opened the scoring and pretty much disappeared the rest of the way. Brad Boyes is having trouble sustaining offensive momentum but I have liked the way he’s thrown his body around a bit. But he needs to be better with the puck and quickly get himself back in the slot area.

The crowd is one final thing to address here. Can you tell we’ve been waiting a long time for this?

I’m thrilled to say I was able to be a part of that atmosphere because I never had been. The last playoff game I was at had thousands of screaming Sabres fans there. But not Sunday. Sunday was virtually all Islanders, with a scattering of Pens fans here and there throughout the building.

The building left me speechless; as I’m sure it did the same for many of you. It sets up a really intense situation for Game 4 on Tuesday, and that’s become a talking point around the league with several people – media and fans alike - taking notice and calling this the loudest home game of the playoffs thus far.

A few adjustments need to be made heading into Tuesday, but there’s no doubt the Islanders will attempt to make them. They made the adjustments from Friday into Sunday, but allowed themselves to get into penalty troubles again which cost them the game more than anything else, quite frankly, including the officiating. If that 5-on-3 situation never comes up, we’re not even discussing the Strait penalty in overtime.

If the Isles can come out on Tuesday and play their game with some minor adjustments, they stand a very good shot of ending the home playoff game futility streak, and turn this into a three game series.

- Chris

May 4, 2013

Okposo, Isles Ruin Crosby's Return to Stun Pens and Even Series

Since their Game 1 showing on Wednesday night, the Islanders did a lot of talking about playing in the playoffs, adjusting to a different style, and what is required to be competitive. Both John Tavares and Evgeni Nabokov talked about how playing at a playoff intensity level was "supposed to hurt" and how they just didn't get the job done.

May 2, 2013

Isles Suffer Game 1 Letdown, Pens win 5-0

Since we found out on Sunday night that the Islanders would slide to the 8th spot and be playing the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, lots of speculation ensued - mainly centered on how many games Pittsburgh would win in.

Of course, at the very least we wanted to see the Isles play well, keeping the games close and maybe even stealing one on the road from a Pens team that is still trying to get to full health, which is scary when you realize the depth that they already have in place.

After much anticipation and a quiet start, the Pens broke through quickly on the powerplay when Beau Bennett put an odd angled shot past Evgeni Nabokov three and a half minutes into the game and it snowballed from there for the Islanders.

I felt that in the early going, despite the goal the Islanders were handling things fine but you knew they had to be better once the Pens finished their feeling out process. That didn't happen and the Islanders paid dearly for it. With every chance that Pittsburgh was getting up the middle of the ice, the Islanders freaked out and it created all sorts of problems for the better parts of two periods.

I know a lot of people are already on a Nabokov bashing kick, which quite frankly is unwarranted after what happened here. This is playoff hockey - you cannot leave your goalie out to dry, which the Islanders did so many times this season that you could almost see this coming.

I said on the show this past weekend and I will reiterate: I don't see any benefit to Brian Strait playing in games right now. He was coming off a major ankle injury, and has not looked strong since returning. His speed is shot right now and this was evident on a few Penguins rushes in Game 1. I like him and he's a solid defenseman, but the rust from the injury has not been shaken off yet. This should be Radek Martinek's spot, and that’s a move I'd like to see for Game 2.

We can talk all we want about how the Isles had been playing in the "playoffs" for a month but that is always misleading. On Wednesday night they got to witness the difference and experienced a Pens team that was prepared to play the several notches above regular season play that is required by all playoff teams.

And this doesn't only apply to the Isles. Just look at what happened to the Toronto Maple Leafs, who have finally ended their playoff drought and get to match-up with the Boston Bruins. They were slaughtered in their own way, struggling to even get shots off against a Bruins defensive structure that has enough experience to know how to tighten up come Spring. Time and space is not given as it would be in the regular season.

The Islanders effort was not there for most of the night, but did improve later on in the game when the Penguins were perhaps taking their foot off the gas a little bit.

However, despite this there were some silver linings.

John Tavares looked like he was made for playoff hockey, despite the fact the Penguins bothered him all night. He had some nice rushes but couldn't get the chances off at the last moments in some cases but you could see he knew where to be, what to do, and the intensity that's required. This is more than we can say about several of his counterparts.

Kevin Poulin came into a difficult situation and did an admirable job replacing Nabokov, making some nice saves and only giving up one goal of his own. He wasn't tested as much as Nabokov, but it was nice to see him shake off some jitters after his unexpected first playoff appearance.

The Penguins got their scoring from some unlikely sources, Pascal Dupuis aside. I felt the Isles did a good enough job neutralizing Evgeni Malkin (despite his two points, which came during powerplay time). James Neal suffered a concussion (no details as to the extent) and Sidney Crosby is an unknown at this point as far as his availability (we'll assume game-by-game).

Given that, it's a shame the Islanders really couldn't compete in their first playoff game in six years. But if these players are still in limbo by Game 2, then it becomes a must win. The Penguins would still have Malkin, Jarome Iginla and Brendan Morrow, but the job is slightly easier with Neal's potential absence.

Personally, I don't see the Isles getting blown out in any more games this series. I'd expect them to be a bit closer now that they've seen what a playoff game is REALLY like.

Will Capuano make the necessary changes to reverse the Isles fortunes? They've taken steps away from what's made them successful and need to snap out of it, bear down and realize what more they need to do. As a matter of fact, Tavares and Nabokov said it the best themselves when asked about it during the post game. They need to recognize the fact that they need to battle even harder, and that winning in the playoffs is "supposed to hurt."

That message needs to be sent throughout the organization before 7 PM on Friday.

- Chris