December 18, 2013

'It Sucks'

There really is no other way to describe it, and with the way things are going it can refer to anything. Tuesday night's game against Tampa Bay. The last month and a half. The defense. The penalty kill. There's been a lot that's gone wrong for the Isles that you can apply this quote to, muttered by Jack Capuano after the Isles stunning loss against the Bolts.

To say this team seems to find ways to lose lately is an understatement of epic proportions. Just when you think you've seen it all, a game like Tuesday night pops up and you're left with your jaw dropped as you watch this unfold before your eyes.

For 57 minutes, the Isles played a solid all around game, only suffering lapses on a couple of shifts where the Lightning came fast and furiously. But each time the Isles held together, keeping most shots away from Evgeni Nabokov and giving him the chance to see everything. Often times he was square to the shooter and gobbled the puck up in his chest area. He had good movements all night and made a few fantastic saves when the Isles really needed him to which kept Tampa scoreless.

But then the last three minutes happened. And Frans Nielsen happened. And the equivalent of a youth soccer game happened.

Nielsen did something he rarely does and turned over a puck in a horrible area after trying a backhanded pass from the half wall in his own end, finding a wide open Valtteri Filppula in the faceoff circle who then rifled the puck over Nabokov's shoulder to cut the lead to one and left many Isles fans biting their nails and sighing and groaning as they wondered if this was going to be the same old song and dance.

Then came the final minute, where the Islanders were in their all too familiar mode of being unable to contain the puck and get out of their own way. Players were losing the puck uncovered, while being nervous that an opposing player might be on their heels. Others tried to force passes where there were none. And when Tampa pulled Ben Bishop you knew it was a recipe for disaster.

That disaster saw the Islanders, all five skaters on the ice, sprawled out in a pile-up to Nabokov's right hoping that somewhere under there was the puck, and that with just seconds left all would be well.

Of course the puck comes out from under that pile to Nabokov's left, where Martin St. Louis and Filppula were standing - because who else would be there other than the opposing teams two best available players? And with 3.8 seconds left Filppula's dribbling shot sent the Lightning into jubilation while the rest of the Coliseum and the Isles bench shouted things we won't repeat on this family show.

Martin gives Gudas a shot in retaliation. Photo by C. Hessel
Another overtime came and went, and the Isles once again couldn't settle things during normal play and would fall in the shootout on some fantastic moves. John Tavares flung the puck down ice and smashed his stick in frustration as he could not convert on his shot attempt that ended the game.

The players frustration showed in the locker room where Tavares, Kyle Okposo and Brock Nelson stared at nothing in particular, deep in thought about what they were just a part of.

"We were playing well up until then," Nelson told me as he reflected on the outcome. "We didn't make the same plays we had up until that point and it hurt us."

Nelson, like many players is trying to find answers for a struggling hockey club, and is a young player who is experiencing a lot of losing early in his career. "I think we have to finish hard, keep making simple plays, using the boards to get pucks in deep, keep it in their end and get out of our d-zone as fast and as clean as we can."

These ideas are easier said than done for this Isles club, and although they seem to know the right things to do in these situations they don't seem to be able to execute the way they have in the past, particularly at the end of last season. It's a perplexing issue, but once you saw Tampa get that first goal it seemed like everyone locked up, both mentally and physically.

But like I said earlier there were some bright spots for the Isles like Nabokov, Nielsen (turnover aside), Okposo and Tavares who had a pretty nifty move and almost scored on his own effort. The powerplay looked coherent and the one penalty the Isles had to kill off went fairly well with several clears and smart plays to get the puck out of trouble.

As far as lost players go, Josh Bailey seems to have lost a ton of confidence and you can see it in his play. He flubbed 1.5 breakaways (the first one was a tough shot to get off with borderline trip that occurred) and with no one near him for the second attempt he just missed high and wide over the net. On the boards he's not as physical and loses a lot of the battles. In the past when others would pile on, I would at least point out the defensive and physical play but not even that has been present and it's alarming.

As the down spiral continues, the Isles find themselves matching up with the Rangers in MSG on Friday night. With that team looking to try and find some consistency of their own, the Islanders will have their hands full and if they get down early could have a hard time finding anything to rally themselves around.

- Chris

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