October 16, 2013

Sabres Earn First Victory on more Blown Leads by Isles

While it's certainly not time to panic yet with so many games left to play, the fact that the Islanders are having trouble playing against teams that (on the surface) they are better than does bring a cause for concern.

When I look at the way the last two games against the Nashville Predators and Buffalo Sabres have gone, I'm disappointed in the way this team has played. It's still the same problems we've seen recently.

The defense is having a lot of trouble position wise, and any NHL team is going to try and exploit that - whether you're the defending Stanley Cup Champion Blackhawks or the now previously winless Sabres.

The Islanders were a step behind all night and I feel like they are lucky to have gotten a point out of the game. They took far too long to make decisions on where to pass a puck, which way to go around the boards and who to cover on defense. The Sabres took advantage of the indecisiveness a few times and this showed on a couple of the longer possessions they had in their offensive zone.

Passing and forcing plays that aren't there continues to be the teams worst enemy. I'm not sure why there is a need to do the fancy passing, especially on a 3-on-2 or 2-on-1 situation but puck carriers are passing up an awful lot of chances to get an easy shot on net where they could possibly create a rebound opportunity. We saw just about everyone over skate a pass on offensive rushes. The ones sticking out in my mind are Michael Grabner and Kyle Okposo. Yes, the ice seemed to be terrible once again and this attributed to some of the struggles when it comes to that. But at this point, when has it not been bad? These players have played a number of games on this surface over the years. They should know the drill.

I feel like when this team was playing at it's best, they were dumping and playing physical to win puck battles on the boards and generate cycles. This is what happened on the road to the playoffs, and of course in the playoffs. But I haven't seen anything like that so far.

Instead what we've seen is a lot of guys trying to make individual plays. They either try an ill-advised cross ice pass in the neutral zone, or they try and carry the puck into the offensive zone and stick handle around four defending players. Against NHL teams, no matter the skill level, this simply will not work.

Because of this, the Islanders are making things easy on teams and right now they haven't made the necessary adjustments to their playbook. Unless the physical play returns from both defensemen and forwards alike, opposing teams will continue to stand around the crease all game and make life difficult for the Isles.

I've already seen a lot of the negative comments towards Evgeni Nabokov, and I can't blame him for this game. There is not a goal that I can pin on him and say he has to be in better position for or has to react better on. Two goals were scored off of terrible turnovers (and subsequent horrible coverage and efforts by Travis Hamonic, John Tavares and Brian Strait), and another was scored on a powerplay by the Sabres big guns on a nice cycle and effort. I'm not even going to bother judging the goals in the skills competition for this game, because I usually don't feel it's fair to.

There were some nice moments for sure, the best efforts coming from Frans Nielsen. It's no coincidence that the line he finds himself on tends to be the better one for the Isles. Although out of sync much of the time, the Tavares-Okposo-Grabner line did produce some nice scoring chances. I think that can be a solid line once they get a bit more familiar playing with one another. Ryan Miller did his part, which also didn't help the Isles very much at times.

When the game got chippy the Isles did respond, and made a Steve Ott penalty as a result of mugging Tavares hurt. Cal Clutterbuck and Matt Martin ramped up the physical play after that but the team couldn't keep the momentum going and ultimately faded down the stretched, allowed bad habits to bleed through and gave up yet another late 3rd period game tying goal.

I said on the show this past Sunday that the Isles needed a minimum of four of the six possible points this week given the opponents, how the rest of the division has started and how the schedule comes fast and furiously once we shift to November. The Isles won't do themselves any favors later on if they get into a lapse this week against teams like Edmonton and Carolina.

The Oilers are a fast and offensively skilled team. Based on what we've seen so far this season, that poses a huge threat to the Isles that the team may not be able to overcome. They won't have much time to analyze the tapes and tighten up defensively.

Edmonton is a team that you can beat though, and guys like Clutterbuck and Martin can throw them off their game. If the Islanders can get a dump and chase going and throw some bodies around early, it will make life much easier for them going against a young team that doesn't have as much muscle as other teams. But if they are going to try and force passes and plays that aren't there, it'll be a long night with odd man rushes going the other way.

- Chris

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