November 23, 2013

Isles Fall in Heartbreaking Loss to Pens

It's hard to find a loss more heartbreaking than the 4-3 one the Isles suffered on Friday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins, especially given the circumstances.

Thomas Vanek returned and had his breakout game as a member of the Isles, scoring two goals in helping the Isles get back into the game after going down early.

The reason the Isles were down in the first place was because of some questionable penalty calls against them in the first place. The Penguins had two quick goals and within eight minutes had the 2-0 lead.

It was unfortunate because it was one of the better games the Isles had played in a while. Within the first five minutes, the Islanders looked good and had some solid chances on Jeff Zatkoff that made the Pens look like they were scrambling a bit. The Pens defense is something the Isles haven't had much trouble navigating in recent months, and as we were able to see Friday night was no different.

The Isles came out in the second period flying, perhaps feeling a bit rejuvenated that Chris Kunitz's potential hat trick goal was waived off thanks to a penalty call a few second earlier. Kunitz would never get that hat trick goal.

Vanek answered almost two minutes into the 2nd period and it jump started the Isles, despite Evgeni Malkin answering with his first goal in 12 games. No Isles game would be complete without a player ending a long goalless streak, especially one who has become an Islander killer over his career.

Vanek and Colin McDonald scored about a minute and a half apart midway through the period, with Vanek's goal coming thanks to some hard work and battling in front of the net to put home a garbage goal and tie the game up at three.

Naturally, the Isles had some trouble defensively and Kevin Poulin was great in the third period for them when they needed him to be, making some big saves. Unfortunately it was a Sidney Crosby goal on a breakdown with 1:16 left that did the Isles in. Similar to the reason Malkin had scored earlier, a breakdown is what left the player wide open in front of Poulin.

It was big for the Isles to be able to come back in this game, but the inability to kill penalties continues to be a big reason on why they continue to dip in the standings. After some solid showings the past few years, a 70% rate this season is quite an ugly number. Right now there is a lot of distance between them and the other teams as far as playing a man down goes and it is alarming.

At some point the psychological effects will take over. The team can take all the leads they want, but when a penalty gets called against them - which is generally unavoidable with the way penalties are called in the NHL these days - it will start to creep into their head. And for some players I think it already has.

Casey Cizikas had been not playing very well, really up until last week and although his offense seems to have come back on the defensive end he still seems unsure and seems to be taking the penalty kills personally.

And what about Michael Grabner? For the last few years we've seen him thrive with the Isles a man down, and he would often pick plays off and clear or go off on a breakaway. However it's been a while since we've seen that. With him struggling, perhaps the inability of the team to kill off penalties as well as they used to is a factor in his fragile state.

Whatever the reason for it, the Isles are running out of time to figure it out and it's costing them games. We should be sitting here analyzing a win over the Penguins if the Isles penalty kill was anywhere close to what it's been the prior few seasons, but instead we're concerned about where the team is headed for the future.

They'll play Philly on Saturday night, and it doesn't give them much time to solve their problems. The Flyers are playing better of late and the powerplay has been a strength of theirs in recent games.

Poulin will likely get the start once again, and he'll need to be sharp to give the Isles a chance. The Flyers seemed to handle him well the last time these teams met earlier this season at the Coliseum.

- Chris

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