January 3, 2015

Tavares wins Battle of the Johnnys 2-1

The Islanders continued their road trip out West on Friday night, taking on a Calgary Flames team that has been Jekyll and Hyde all season long. Lately they have gotten back to their winning ways thanks to their quick skating offense, especially that of Johnny Gaudreau.

However on Friday night it was John Tavares who would win in the battle of the Johnnys after he scored both goals for the Isles in their 2-1 win.

Given how the Flames play, the Isles were successful in their system selection and implementation. The Flames are very quick in transition, and the Isles were very careful in not pinching too much on defense meaning that the Flames had to dump and chase with a team that was a little larger than they were.

The Isles did well on many of the board battles and did control the play more often than not. Jaroslav Halak stepped up and was great when he had to be. This was one of those classic games one can point to when they say a goaltender needs to make all the saves he should, as well as one or two other big ones. Halak stopped 22 of 23 shots. If you've been paying attention the last few games you'll notice that the Isles aren't giving up many shots. In their past five games where Halak played, they have not given up more than 26 shots, and he has been stopping many of them effectively. This is mirroring the success he had the last few years with the St. Louis Blues, with a defense that was very stingy.

The Isles defense deserves some props, and in this game we saw several key plays from them. Both teams did an excellent job of blocking shots, and the Isles blocked several in the 3rd period. The Isles did give up the goal to Gaudreau with just over three minutes to play but didn't show too much panic and rebounded nicely to solidify the win in the final minutes despite Calgary pulling their goaltender.

The second goal that Tavares scored was a nice one, as he came around the net and tried to find Kyle Okposo. When that failed he picked up the loose puck and used his strength to shake the defender off of him and get a shot off. Jonas Hiller was in great position but the puck trickled in between his pads, after he went down to the ice in anticipation of an initial shot that never got through. It was a glimpse into the Tavares we were used to seeing, and just from his reaction you could see how Tavares felt the same way. As he's starting to get on the score sheet with more regularity, one has to wonder if he's finally turning the corner. The amount of turnovers has decreased and that has been one of the bigger problems that has plagued Tavares in the first half of the season.

The Isles penalty kill worked really well once again, and for the first time in a while I can say we have some confidence in the unit. Sure they've killed off 21 of the last 23 opportunities, however last night they had some excellent spacing and movement when down a man. It was difficult for Calgary to find anyone open for any amount of time and this is a huge improvement for an Isles unit that was allowing several shots to opposing skill players. There is still a lot of work to do to get this unit out of the basement, but they finally have found something over the past couple of games that is working.

I mentioned the strength of the defense earlier, but two guys in particular who looked very strong were Travis Hamonic and Calvin de Haan. I've pointed out some blemishes from them over the past few games and want to tip my cap to solid performances. De Haan skated really well and kept the puck out of trouble. He had some spirited battles on the boards and was in solid position to make some key blocks in the 3rd period. Hamonic had been really good since he came back from IR and only had a couple of 'down' games so it's nice to see him get back to basics. Perhaps being closer to home is what the doctor ordered.

The Flames did plenty of shot blocking on their own and really dominated in this area early in the game. But the Isles stuck to their gameplan and didn't stray from it. They were able to catch the Flames on their heels a few times and go in on odd-man rushes but Hiller looked strong as well.

This was a very good win for the Islanders in what amounted to a pitchers duel. The Flames did a lot of what we expected them to, and the Isles were well prepared for this upstart team.

One has to wonder what is in store for Sunday night when the Isles play in Edmonton. It would seem to me that the Isles might want to give Chad Johnson another look despite having the rest day on Monday. Obviously they want to keep Halak fresh on this extended road trip so it might be a smart move. Of course in the NHL, nothing is guaranteed even against a team that has struggled as mightily as the Oilers have this season so it's entirely possible that the Isles won't want to appear as they are treading lightly. The Oilers are constructed in a similar manner to the Flames, however they don't have as much of a veteran presence up front and are a little weak up the middle, both of which have attributed to their struggles over these last several years. A similar gameplan as shown in Winnipeg and Calgary most likely gets the job done.

- Chris

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