December 14, 2014

Isles end Three Game Skid, Hawks Streak

And now, everyone breathe.

After dropping their previous three games including blowing two 3-0 leads, the Islanders completed a thrilling come from behind 3-2 win against the streaking Chicago Blackhawks, restoring some of the good vibes around the team after some fans began to worry and wonder about about a team that still had plenty of room to play with.

For the Isles, this was the best game we have seen from them in a while. From the beginning, they were doing the small things they need to do to be successful. In particular they were doing what I have been wanting for a while, going with a heavy dump and chase game. The best part was how aggressive they were on the forecheck, trying to force turnovers and put pressure on the Blackhawks in their own zone. The Isles didn't win a lot of the board battles until later on in the game but it was an effective game plan against a team that is very skilled.

The Isles definitely brought the physical play and it showed particularly in the 2nd and 3rd period. It seemed like they were feeling the Hawks out in the first period and were being very cautious with their play as the Hawks took the first six shots in the game before the Isles generated anything in the offensive zone.

Jaroslav Halak got back on track as well, making some fantastic saves to keep the Isles in the game early with the Hawks getting the better of play. He kept a lot of his movements to a minimum and didn't allow for many of the 2nd and 3rd chances as we had seen in the previous games, particularly Thursday night against St. Louis where half of the goals trickled in off of him. It happened on the first goal scored by Dan Carcillo, but that was an unfortunate bounce after a real nice save by Halak. He stopped 23 of 25 shots overall for his 15th win of the year.

Despite that goal, the Isles didn't fall into a shell. They stuck with their game plan and it forced a turnover. Even the best can make mistakes, as we saw when Duncan Keith turned the puck over to Cal Clutterbuck at his own goal line, giving the Isles the answer six seconds later.

Patrick Kane is a special player, and the backhand shot he took in the 3rd period showed us why. I can't recall the last time I saw a player get that much on a backhand shot but Halak's reaction was probably the only response to that, throwing the shoulder up. Kane's shot found the smallest of openings and Lubomir Visnovsky was covering Kane well, making this the only shot he could get off and he delivered.

Speaking of Visnovsky, what a game for him. He had two real nice defensive poke checks in the 2nd and 3rd periods, however it was his offensive game that really made his night great. He had several really nice rushes and took a couple of hard slapshots from the point. His beautiful rush and patience on the game winning goal showed us exactly why he's been valuable to the Isles, and the Isles have been much better with him in the line-up this season. He stepped up when needed as the Isles hopefully enter a time when their injured players are closed to returning.

Staying on defense Griffin Reinhart drew back into the line-up, playing for Brian Strait who has been a bit of a mess in his own end all season. And if play dictates anything, we may very well have seen the last of Strait. Once again I liked what I saw out of Reinhart and he was given a couple more minutes of ice time to work with and did well. He played within his limitations, and even threw the body around a bit - something that usually lacks in his game. He was involved in a skirmish and didn't back down from challenges, finishing the night with four hits. If he keeps things simple, knowing he's not the best skater out there, then he'll be just fine. We'll see if the solid game results in more games and minutes coming his way.

The Isles got their powerplay working eventually in the game too with Kyle Okposo scoring about 50 seconds before Visnovsky in the 3rd period, however the other chances the Isles had were rather forgettable. The Hawks penalty killers were all over the Isles, and rather than create offense from the blueline the Isles were trying to pass it in tight or in the slot area, which generally resulted in tie ups and easy clears for the Hawks. This team is excellent at clogging up the middle, but you have to be trying to get the puck towards the net by way of a shot rather than by trying to pass in tight. This is exactly what worked for the Isles on the Okposo goal that tied things up at two.

The fact that the Isles played this style of a game, and did so in a very disciplined and smart manner is huge, given the quality of the opponent. They dropped some of these other games against the West, but to navigate through a team that's excellent at playing the grind it out style is big. For much of the game the Hawks defense and system frustrated the Isles, but they began to realize that they needed to get some shots in on Scott Darling from the outside to try and create rebound opportunities. There were not many, but it's how you have to play against a team like this. Darling might not be Corey Crawford but he and Antti Raanta have been excellent for the Hawks this year.

Now they'll return to playing an Eastern Conference foe, getting back to it on Monday night against the Tampa Bay Lightning New Jersey Devils. The Isles match up well with this team and have generally played a style this year that more favors play against teams like this so we'll see if the Isles begin to put together another winning streak. Getting any of the injured back will provide a boost too, and Casey Cizikas, Travis Hamonic and Johnny Boychuk have all been skating and practicing with the team. There was actually a chance that Cizikas and Hamonic could have returned on Saturday night but the Isles are wise to be cautious now. Cizikas is missed for his face-off ability as we saw from Saturday night.

All in all it was an excellent effort by the Islanders, who definitely outplayed and outworked the Hawks for a majority of the game and deserved the two points. Many were freaking out about the three game losing streak however the fact that the Isles built up as many points as they did in the early going showed us why it is better to be in this position than only hoovering around .500 for the first two months and having a hill to climb up. There was breathing room, and now the Isles snapped their slide with injured players on the verge of returning. The team fed off of an electric atmosphere despite this situation.

- Chris

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