October 11, 2014

Nelson and Boychuk Shine in Season Opener

After making two huge trades last weekend, the level of anticipation for the 2014-15 season reached heights that no one can remember in recent years to the point where every passing day seemed like it was taking more than 24 hours. On Friday, we finally had our first look at the new look Islanders and they made a nice statement in their 5-3 win over the Carolina Hurricanes.

We were all unsure of what to expect from new defensemen Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy after they were acquired in two excellent deals from Boston and Chicago respectively for a grand total of nothing from the current roster. We knew that these guys would be in the line-up come Friday night, but all they would have had was a few days of practice and no game action with their new teammates.

They paired together, a smart thing for the Islanders to do off the bat and immediately made an impact. Late in the first period, Boychuk would open the scoring on the season for the Isles with a powerplay rocket from the point - one that has earned him the nickname Johnny Rocket from all those years in Boston. The powerplay will be something new for him this season with the increased role and he delivered on the first night of the season.

But the good vibes from Boychuk don't stop there. He also was solid defensively and did an excellent job of protecting pucks along the boards. When he had a forward bearing down on him in races for loose pucks, he always had the answer and kept pucks away from the opposing team, often chipping them out to the right areas. This is something the Islanders have had trouble with for a long time, but on Friday night things seemed much calmer with Boychuk on the ice.

Not to be outdone, Leddy was also solid despite not putting up any points to show for it. He and Boychuk did an excellent job of keeping shots to the outside and Leddy used his speed to control plays and didn't look panicked knowing that he had a step on his man. For these two to be so in sync despite never playing in a game situation together, it shows you how smart they are and how happy we should be to have them in the top four.

Brock Nelson carried his play over from the preseason, where he was the best player on the ice most nights and the one who showed the most improvements. Centering Ryan Strome and Mikhail Grabovski, Nelson had two goals and two assists on way to a fist star selection. The favorite to take that 1st line wing spot going into camp, it will be interesting to see if he lasts for a long stretch as the 2nd line center or if he ends up moving to the top line in a few weeks if he keeps showing the league how much he improved his game in the offseason. However, his line looked good as both Strome and Grabovski contributed in their own ways. Grabovski looked a little better than he did at points during the preseason and had a goal to show for his efforts, despite missing a couple of chances earlier in the game because his mind was working too fast for his hands. On his goal, Nelson made a very subtle yet very key dump in to give Strome the ability to win a board battle and find Grabovski who literally took nothing to shoot at and made it into a goal.

There were points where the Isles actually looked like a team, with everyone working hard and moving their legs. They definitely have a pep in their step, but it's really the first time since the playoffs two years ago where we saw everyone energized and consistently moving. Jack Capuano seems to be instilling a more up-tempo style than in years past, and he has the horses to do it now regardless of how much time Michael Grabner may miss.

Jaroslav Halak faced more of the shots earlier on but went for a long stretch where he wasn't tested with anything tough until the Isles took their 2nd penalty of the game. But he made some nice saves at key moments to keep the Canes off the scoreboard and allowed the Isles to build up a three goal lead. The first goal he gave up was an unfortunate bounce off of a nice shot on the powerplay. The second goal was due in large part to him expecting the pressure John Tavares was putting on Andrej Sekera to be enough and letting his guard down, getting too far into the net and very slow to move back across the ice.

This was a solid building block for the Islanders, although some perspective does have to be put in place. The Hurricanes are a team that many don't have high expectations for this season, and given the improvements made it's a team the Islanders should be beating. No matter of the make-up of these teams, Carolina over the past several seasons have always seemed to have the Isles number - especially when the Isles are the visiting team. So for me, I like the fact they beat a team they should have they they historically have not. I like the fact that they actually maintained and built on a lead in the third rather than chasing for long stretches of the 3rd as we've seen in the past (it still happened but not at crucial points of the period). Winning the first game of the year is always the first hurdle, and a way to get comfortable immediately. The thing that will really tell us something about how much improved this team is would be sustainability. If the Isles can win the home opener, that would be a huge step. If the Isles can rattle off a five or six game winning streak at a couple of points in the season - as many good teams will do - then we will have experienced the full impact. But steps need to be taken and this is a big one.

So now we see how the Isles perform Saturday at home, a place that hasn't been as kind to them in recent years. And if they can take some momentum from there, it will be key as they would head into match-ups with teams much better than the Hurricanes next week.

- Chris

1 comment:

ALH said...

I think Halak is a big question for the team this year. He needs to maintain strong confidence. I look forward to observing how he stands up to a tight game in crunch time.