January 17, 2014

Nielsen, Isles Slide Past Lightning in Shootout

The Islanders found themselves in a tight game with the Tampa Bay Lightning for pretty much the duration of the contest, and were able to overcome an early powerplay goal by Isles killer Martin St. Louis to defeat the improved Lightning in overtime as they continue to try and put together a long successful streak that will propel them back into playoff contention.

It was not the cleanest of efforts by the Isles, who had to battle through some very shaky play early on, particularly from the defense and from Kevin Poulin as well.

It's clear that the confidence has taken a bit of a hit with the absence of Travis Hamonic and there are times where it really shows. Andrew MacDonald was already seeing more minutes than he should be, and now he's going to be relied on even more. Fortunately he didn't really make too many mistakes and kept himself in check, making some nice defensive plays with his stick and some timely blocks to keep the puck out of harms way.

The Lightning had trouble generating many chances, although they seemed to feel confident against the Islanders defense. The way they set up their plays was from the wall, and they would lob pucks towards the slot area where they had forwards streaking. The Isles were fortunate to either be in good position to tie up a player, or have the Lightning passers just miss those cutting towards the net. It certainly seems like this is a good strategy to employ against a weaker defensive team however.

For a team like the Islanders, they can learn some lessons from the Lightning which is constructed in a similar fashion. I don't like the fact that the Isles seem to miss out on rebound opportunities frequently and wish they had more players cutting to the net, especially with the talent and skill level some guys have. But overall the Isles are putting together some good efforts and that's what's important and leading to wins, and overall they did a good job of not giving the Bolts very many plays via the slot area.

The play by Frans Nielsen and Thomas Vanek on the man advantage was a thing of beauty and tied the game at one. It was a fortunate bounce that went right to Nielsen, but he made such a subtle move on Ben Bishop that he expected the shot. But when Nielsen passed the puck to Vanek, who was still regaining his footing, it caught everyone by surprise, except for Vanek somehow, and there was no chance of keeping that one out. Nielsen has slowed down since getting off to his hot start, and some areas of his game have not been as great, but this was a brilliant play.

For Vanek, it only continued his hot stretch, and he looks like a completely different player than the one the Isles originally acquired back in October. He's skating much better than he was, and overall has shown a much better two-way game than we were all lead to believe he had. He still has some moments where he gets caught watching too much on the defensive end, but his main job is to provide offense and score and over the past month and change that's all he's done. When he's not, he's racking up the assists on some wonderful plays of his own. He does have to work on those shootout opportunities, however.

In the long run this victory could end up costing the Islanders since the league takes out of consideration the games that are won in a shootout. It's important for this team right now to rack up points, but with more games played than most teams every point will be valuable for them and as many points as possible need to come in regulation or overtime. But for now you take the two points against a good team and run.

I liked a lot of what the Isles showed in the game overall, and they did a decent job on defense given the deficiencies. However, the Bolts had a lot of nice passing plays as they skated deep into the zone, leaving Poulin to make some strong saves. There were a few times the Isles looked doomed but the Lightning would barely miss the net on a good chance too. That is something that was a bit alarming, but it didn't really hurt the Isles in this one. But you get a hotter team that's firing on all cylinders and the outcome could end up being quite different.

Now comes the real test of the road trip. With the Isles seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, they will have to dig deep one more time to find another win on the road in Philadelphia. This one would probably be the most important one as it's against a division opponent. The Isles need to find a way to kick off the home-and-home with the Flyers the right way, and a win on Saturday night would put them in a good spot as we get closer and closer to the Olympic break. If they can make up some ground between now and then, it'd be fantastic. But it'll only happen if they can beat their own division.

- Chris

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