October 12, 2013

Hawks Give Isles First Regulation Loss

We always hear the statement, but it never fails to be true. If you struggle to keep your legs moving you will lose, no matter how skilled your opponent is. The Islanders got stuck early on in the game in "deer-in-headlights" mode and although they came close, they ultimately were unable to recover.

The Blackhawks controlled the play for much of the first period. The Islanders had trouble gaining and maintaining possession of the puck and it lead to some excellent Hawks chances. Kevin Poulin had to make some nice saves, but the Hawks missed an unusually high amount of shots which helped the Isles as well.

It seemed as though the Isles were a bit fearful, understanding that the Hawks were the most skilled team they've played in a while. They spent a lot of time collapsing in front of Poulin, often leaving the points wide open. A blueline that boasts names such as Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith and Nick Leddy on it will take any space you give them and create something with it. This is exactly what happened and what I suspect Jack Capuano was talking about during the post game.

Around the net, the Isles didn't give Poulin as much support as we would have hoped for, often leaving him out to dry to either give up goals or make a big save. The roughest night came from Matt Donovan and Brian Strait, although every Isles defenseman seemed to have a mishap or two. But for these two the errors were frequent and directly resulted in Hawks chances. Donovan had impressed me early on, specifically with his ability to battle on the boards for pucks but he lost what seemed like all of these battles against Chicago.

Once exhaustion set in from the lost battles, they had trouble covering their men and you had forwards who didn't know where to go, and defensemen who were trapped behind the net while Hawks players created space in front of the net. You saw this on the goals by Joakim Nordstrom and Michal Handzus.

It wasn't all bad. Prior to this past February, the Isles probably let this game go by the wayside and after giving up two goals allow the frustration and distracted play to take over. But once the clock changed to one minute left in the first, they turned the burners on and scored two goals 50 seconds apart and went into the intermission with a brand new game. Josh Bailey and Kyle Okposo finished the job after nice play by their linemates. The Handzus goal was all that the Hawks would get after that. In the third the Isles played much better and did a good job of getting towards the net and winning battles. It still wasn't ideal, but had they been able to play like that for slightly more than the last 13-15 minutes they probably come out of this game with a point.

Of course, there is the play of Poulin. I was critical of the decision to go with the back-up against this Chicago team, as were many others. But I suppose this is why we're all here watching and not coaching.

Poulin was positionally sound all night, really except for one or two times. The Johnathan Toews goal was probably one but there aren't going to be many goalies who can react quickly to a puck off the boards with the force that one had from Keith. But he stood tall in the crease, minimized his movements and showed confidence by standing at the top of the crease. A nice, confidence building game for him for sure. The team seemed to get more comfortable playing in front of him too as the game wore on. The back-up position will be important this year, so if Poulin can put forth efforts like this more often than not then it should be fine. The question here has always been consistency, but things did seem different with him tonight than in years past.

Going into Nashville, the Isles will play better. They know what they have to do to beat that team and have the horses to come out of the road trip with a split. The key is going to be keeping the scrambling to a minimum. The Predators don't have many offensive weapons up front, but can still punish you if you give them too much time or let them outwork you. If the Isles can set the tone early and keep their legs moving I love their chances of coming home with two points.

- Chris

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