January 28, 2015

Isles Down Rangers as Season Resumes; Thoughts to Start '2nd Half'

A little snow couldn't keep the Islanders and Rangers from playing on Tuesday night. It couldn't keep the fans home either. I can't recall ever seeing the Nassau Coliseum that full so soon after a snowstorm but the fans showed up, loud and proud. It brought a fun atmosphere for what was an intense game to kick off the 2nd half of the season. It's key not to get lost in some of the intensity, and the Isles did their best to not let that happen despite the eight day break on their way to the 4-1 victory.

This game was a classic. When these two get together, this is what you want to see. The end to end action was incredible, and in general the refs kept the whistles in their pockets unless absolutely necessary. Neither of the teams came out particularly slow in the early going and the shot totals piled up quickly.

The Islanders didn't get the job done in the prettiest way of course, as they got outplayed and outpossessed at points, especially in the second period. Really, one of the top reasons that the Isles won this game was thanks to the work that Jaroslav Halak did as he made 40 saves and lost his shutout with just eight seconds remaining.

Halak was stellar on the penalty kills, where I felt the Isles were a bit jumpy and over aggressive. The Rangers had some phenomenal chances but hesitated or couldn't hammer home rebounds. And because of the frustration settling in thanks to some big saves by Halak they really tried too hard and were extra quick on some passing plays which meant pucks going over sticks to the boards. This allowed the Isles defenders to apply some pressure and keep them to the outside. But ultimately Halak stole the show when the Isles were a man down.

The Isles did well offensively and had a lot of excellent chances aside from the four goals they scored. Mikhail Grabovski got a spin on the first line with Kyle Okposo out for an extended period of time and he looked fantastic. He chose an excellent time to finally get some strong shots off, and to actually have them hit the net. He used some of his speed to even go on the back-check and helped to break-up some key plays. If Grabovski was ready to go before the all-star break but was being held out a la Michael Grabner, then he certainly got the message and earned himself an extended look on the top line.

I'll admit Grabo was not my first choice to ride shotgun with John Tavares in Okposo's absence. I felt Ryan Strome should have gotten first crack, but if this is going to get Grabo going then I'm all for it. But if Strome wanted to make sure no one forgot him as a potential option should Grabovski falter then he did an excellent job of that. He too had a nice showing and was very aggressive in front of the net. He didn't get a good piece of a puck all night but still had a goal and a post to show.

I do want to take a moment to point out the play of Tavares. I bellyached as he went off to the All-Star Game, where he scored four goals. Normally celebrated for his scoring - and that certainly has been the norm for me in this space - how about the aggression he showed here against the Rangers? He was definitely amped up for this game and had an extra gear. I was most impressed with his board work. He's always been a guy who plays on the boards, but I never felt he was truly a force. He banged his body around all night and showed no signs of slowing down. I scoffed when Jonathan Toews drafted JT to his all-star team because he was "a two-way player" but maybe he was onto something if we are going to see more of this from Tavares in the second half of the season.

The fourth line was up to their usual antics. Cal Clutterbuck was in the middle of everything in a physical game. Matt Martin continued his penchant for scoring big goals in some big games, particularly against his crosstown rivals, and was also involved in all of the rough stuff which ended his night a few minutes early. And Casey Cizikas provided some nice rushes and passes which lead to wonderful scoring chances, many of which were stopped by a very solid Henrik Lundqvist - especially in the first two frames.

I still haven't figured out Calvin de Haan. Early in the game he was making the turnovers that unfortunately have become normal for him this year. But as the game drew on and the Isles began to put up some goals, he was keeping the puck in the zone and getting it towards the net area. He was very active and finished with an assist and a few hits but I felt his start was rocky. None of it lead to goals though, so I'll take that from him every game if he's going to be solid when it matters most during crunch time.

The pace that this game had was unreal, and it was a true pitchers duel for about half of it. I'm still trying to figure out some of the saves Halak made. Heck I'm still trying to figure out some of the ones Lundqvist made too. However, as Halak was quick to point out his defense did make plenty of sacrifices on their own. Johnny Boychuk finished with six blocked shot, while Brian Strait had four. De Haan even continued to pile up blocked shots for himself.

Strait was definitely noteworthy in this game. He was very active in his limited time and even put a beautiful shot on net. His break outs from behind the net were pretty good and he kept himself relatively mistake free. He was also involved in the middle of a few skirmishes. It can't be easy to be in and out of the line-up everyday and get inconsistent minutes but he stepped up at a perfect time and gave the Isles the contribution they needed on the bottom pairing.

Lets hope the next time these two meet it's a similar pace, and ultimate result. However a game of this style might not match up very well with the Boston Bruins. The Bruins have played some excellent hockey of late and have been finding some line matches that are working. A new addition we haven't seen yet is rookie David Pastrnak, who uses speed and dekeing ability to make the opposition look silly. The Isles will have to keep their eye out, or expect more rushes in on the goalie just as we saw from Carl Hagelin and Chris Kreider a few times on Tuesday night.

The Isles did eke past the Bruins earlier this year, but that was a slightly different team and one that was trending downwards. Now that they've picked up the pace and are firing on all cylinders this will be another good test for the Isles against another team that has consistently been near the top of the standings for the last several years.

Okposo out 6-to-8 Weeks: On Monday while we were all preparing for this supposedly historical snowstorm, the Isles got back to work and announced after practice that Okposo will be out for the next 6-to-8 weeks, putting his return somewhere around the end of March.

The Isles will only classify this as an 'upper body' injury at this time, and it seems pretty significant to keep him out that long. Regardless of rumors and conjecture, this is something that Jack Capuano and the coaching staff will have to work through and try to get the most from the remaining players.

They got off to a good start with Grabovski on Tuesday night. If Grabovski is going to put forward more efforts like that then we'll have a lot to look forward to.

I don't think the Isles would seriously be looking for someone out on the trade market, but if Grabovski and presumably Strome falter in filling Okposo's role it's not inconceivable to think that Garth Snow would kick some tires on a player here or there. But the hope seems to be to get through these next few weeks, evaluate the timetable and then go from there. It's not like the Isles have many assets left to trade away in the near term anyway.

TSN Coaches Poll: Upon the conclusion of All-Star weekend, Bob McKenzie of TSN posted the results of a poll that the Canadian sports giant does every year where they survey 20 NHL coaches anonymously to get their feelings on what coaches deserve to receive certain superlatives through the first half of the season like best coach, best team and best player.

This year the results were very pro-Islanders.

When it came to the best team in the East, the Isles got four votes which is only behind NYR's tally of five. Capuano actually led the way for top coach in the East with three votes - but could this number increase in the second half based on the aforementioned handling of Okposo's absence?

Tavares got a vote for the East's top player, and after his (MVP) All-Star showing it turned more people on to what the Isles have done this year and the fact that they are trending upward thanks in large part to him.

The biggest surprise for me was in regards to the top coach in the East. Is this the same guy that many of us were agreeable to moving on from? Because both he and the Isles are completely different than what they were last year. Granted, the Isles made significant changes but they finally gave him more than one line's worth of talent and you see where the Isles are now. Maybe we were all wrong all along.

- Chris

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