January 1, 2015

Isles end 2014 with Victory in Winnipeg

The Isles 2014 portion of the season has come to a conclusion, with a convincing 5-2 win over the Winnipeg Jets. The Isles overall played very well in the game, and dominated puck possession particularly with 5-on-5 play. Perhaps even better than that, the Isles never had a 3-0 lead that they had the opportunity to blow.

All kidding aside it was a very nice win for the Isles considering that the referees were calling this one tightly, not letting much slip past them. Jack Capuano said in the postgame that he felt the PK was still a weaker point of the Isles game, and they went 3-for-4 on the kill. However there were a lot of close moments and often the Isles didn't get the puck out of the zone until after the Jets got some extended time and pressure. Fortunately they missed the net frequently, and Jaroslav Halak was solid when he needed to be.

The Jets big line of Andrew Ladd, Blake Wheeler and Bryan Little did most of the damage against the Isles, in particular with 5-on-5. The Isles did have some nice shifts on them, particularly with the 4th line against them. However Ladd scored both of Winnipeg's goals and one of them came on the powerplay. Ladd has become somewhat of an Isles killer over the years and Wednesday night was no different with his ability to get to the slot area.

The Isles powerplay continued to produce, going 2-for-7 with the man advantage. While the Isles did have some more trouble getting set-up in the same manner as they had against Washington in the prior game, they were able to get a fist period PPG from Frans Nielsen after a shot attempt broke Johnny Boychuk's stick and went right to a wide open Nielsen. The Isles other goal on the powerplay came from Josh Bailey but was in an empty net. The Isles were a little shy to shoot and ultimately it didn't hurt them. But it does make one wonder if this would have ever really been a one goal game at any point of the night given the way the Isles had started, had then been a little more selfish and shot happy.

Anders Lee continued his presence in front of the net, as he was in the middle of action for two goals that came after scrambles in the crease area. The Isles first goal of the night was credited to Ryan Strome and at first it looked like he could have gotten it with a high stick but it was actually the Jets defender who had gotten the high stick on it. Lee later would get a goal of his own, when he picked up a Strome rebound and banked it high off of the back of Ondrej Pavelec's shoulder and into the net.

I thought Mikhail Grabovski looked a little better as he was actually able to get some shots off, however he did get tagged for two penalties in the game. His game has been erring on the side of frustrating lately, and you have to wonder if part of that is because of the fact that Michael Grabner is inching closer to a return. Grabovski could be feeling the heat to remain in the line-up.

The Isles best line in the game was clearly the one with Lee, Strome and Nielsen. I was skeptical on breaking up the kid line but this has been a pretty effective group with solid two-way play and has showcased two guys who enjoy crashing the net in Strome and Lee. This could be a good way to get Nielsen going, just as Brock Nelson has played a part in making Grabovski and Nikolay Kulemin look a little bit better. Nielsen scored two goals in this game, with his second coming on a nice give and go play with Strome. Strome finished with four points.

Overall I thought that the Isles defense quietly had a very strong game. There weren't many glaring errors and I never got the sense that this team was on their heels at any particular time. They seemed to have a good grasp on the ebbs and flows of how you beat a team like Winnipeg and didn't show much panic. There were some moments in the late second and parts of the third period where the Jets had some sustained pressure in the zone but the Isles did a nice job of trapping them behind the net or keeping them to the outside. In particular they did an excellent job on containing Mathieu Perrault, who has put up some points for the Jets after a slow start and uses a good combination of speed and skill to hurt teams. This is the type of player that could hurt the Isles and they were extra mindful of where he was on the ice and what to do with him when he had control of the puck.

Halak didn't really have to be spectacular in this game but was solid when needed. He stopped 21 of 23 shots but I never did feel he was in danger. The few good low shots the Jets had, he used his pads to send the rebounds towards the corners. He was also the beneficiary of plenty of missed shot attempts, with several rolling across the crease in front of him and into corners for a battle to ensue. But he was always in solid position when he had to be.

As dominant as the Isles typically are on New Years Eve it was especially important for them to have this kind of game, coming off blowing two consecutive 3-0 leads. This was the first game of a seven game trip, of which the second half of is back here in the East. But these are points the Isles needed and they were able to keep pace with the Pittsburgh Penguins, who also won on Wednesday night. Not to mention the Isles were able to keep the gap between themselves and the New York Rangers after their victory over the Florida Panthers, which is important when we see how quickly they have the ability to put together an extended winning streak.

The Isles had a great road effort and will need the same thing on Friday night for a Calgary team that is similarly constructed to the Jets. However the Flames have plenty of smaller yet skilled players, the biggest threat right now being Johnny Gaudreau. The rookie has been on fire of late and looks like he wants to give it his best run for a Calder Trophy and the Isles defense will have to be extra careful with a speed and skill guy like him on the ice.

From both myself and Sean, we'd like to wish all our friends out there a happy and healthy New Year! Thank you for all the follows and listens in 2014, and here's hoping that we can continue to all enjoy this season as 2015 rolls on!

- Chris

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