December 5, 2014

Halak Wins 11th Straight to Break Record as Isles Sweep Home-and-Home with Sens

Clearly, the Ottawa Senators are one of those pesky teams with a good grasp on defense and not a whole lot going on offensively. If you're going to beat them, you have to capitalize on any of the mistakes they make. The Islanders didn't do that often but did it just enough where they eked out two wins over them, sweeping the home-and-home series between Long Island and Ottawa.

When the final buzzer sounded on Thursday night the Isles escaped with the 2-1 win, giving Jaroslav Halak his 11th straight win to break Billy Smith's previous record of 10 in a row. Halak only had to stop 20 of 21 shots to earn that and wasn't tested a whole lot throughout the night aside from a couple of really tough saves.

As mentioned, the Islanders could have been better in exploiting the weaker points of each of these games. However, they did end up with the wins despite it seeming like both were in doubt at some point during the games.

Michael Grabner returned from his long IR stint on Thursday night and had a couple of nice rushes, but perhaps was a bit too anxious in his return. In didn't take him long to get a penalty for a goaltender interference despite the call being a bit tacky. But he had a few nice chances and showed some good jump despite not having what seemed like a great deal of chemistry with Frans Nielsen and Mikhail Grabovski.

Griffin Reinhart returned to the line-up, getting the emergency call-up with Lubomir Visnovsky and Johnny Boychuk both on IR and Travis Hamonic ailing. Although he only played just over 14 minutes, Reinhart looked solid and skated well - which is the biggest weakness in his game right now. There's still plenty of work for him to do but even in limited time I liked what I saw from him more so than what he showed in his previous two (2nd and 3rd games of the season).

Thomas Hickey continued to step up with some solid plays and lately I've been liking what I'm seeing. He jumped into the offense and had a nice rush on his overtime goal on Tuesday night, and continues to jump into the play when it permits while being able to get back on defense. Granted, this week he's had an easier time playing a smaller team and this could be attributing to the improved play but I have to give credit where it's due.

And speaking of defensemen jumping into the play, I like that the Isles were trying to be aggressive in order to try and exploit a reeling Sens team that was missing Bobby Ryan, if only for a short period of time (remarkably). Brian Strait has been very active, especially on Thursday night, with jumping into the play. When the Isles were going in on odd man rushes, I was surprised with how many of them seemed to have Strait involved. Without Visnovsky and Boychuk I wasn't sure how the Isles would be as far as offense from the blueline (Nick Leddy aside) but they certainly adjusted their style a bit to keep the blueline as active as ever, which seems like it's a good thing since the Isles have generated a lot of success from the improved offensive play from the back end.

I felt that this was a game that neither team really wanted to grab hold of, as it seemed both were in sleepwalk mode for a majority. In fact it wasn't until the second period when the Isles started to come on strong where you really felt that one team was controlling the play. Craig Anderson made several nice stops, but the Isles got a fortunate puck in the crease area that Brock Nelson was able to chip in to give the Isles the 1-0 advantage.

Halak had the benefit of several shots that went high or just wide of his cage, but a 5-on-3 powerplay goal by Mika Zibanejad found it's way through him and into the net to tie the game at one. The Isles were able to survive the rest of the kill, despite some other close calls.

I mentioned Grabovski before, and unfortunately he still looks a bit lost. He was at least able to get a few nice chances off in this game but he's still have issues connecting on passes and has taken some steps away from the dump and chase chances he was creating earlier in the year and is trying to rely too much on his skating and puck handling skills to get the puck into the zone.

The Isles were really short handed going into the game given the injuries on defense, in addition to Cal Clutterbuck and Josh Bailey. Not to mention they also had to deal with the energy and emotion surrounding the retirement of Senators great Daniel Alfredsson, who decided to hang up his skates after weighing the pros and cons of playing with a bad back. But they navigated through it all, despite some questionable and slightly lackluster play on their end for the 2-1 win.

The Senators value collapsing in front of the net which clearly frustrated the Isles, but to be this banged up and find ways to win both games against a conference opponent is just the stuff that good teams are made of. It is games like this where we are really getting to see just how good of a team the Isles are. We know they can do well with track meets. But what about defensive battles, or games where you will have trouble generating much offense, or there is bad ice, or some other issue? Well, the Isles have not been generating chances the same way they were earlier on and have still found some satisfying wins, which just means it'll be that much better when they get back to their game and once guys like John Tavares really get going.

The St. Louis Blues come to the Coliseum on Saturday afternoon for a matinee match-up and have hit a rough patch of their own. With an injury to Brian Elliott they opted to sign Martin Brodeur who lost in his debut on Thursday night. Perhaps the Isles can come up with some more luck as they try and get through another (and hopefully final) game with injuries of their own.

- Chris

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