February 20, 2015

Isles Down NHL Points Leader Nashville, 5-2

The Islanders continued to show some solid play against one of the leagues best, and it can give us some hope that maybe they'll get out of the 'rut' that they've found themselves in over the past few weeks when they had less than stellar outings against some of the teams fighting for lottery positions rather than playoff positions.

This was one of the Isles all around best performances in recent weeks and while there were lapses here and there it's about as complete of a game as you could hope for against a Nashville team that is leading the league in points.

Jaroslav Halak showed up to play and aside from his usual adventures behind the net, treated his team and the fans to a real nice show which also included a couple of fantastic save sequences on shots that looked like sure goals. With games coming fast and furiously, this is why it was key that Chad Johnson played the way he did in the prior game in Carolina. That extra bit of rest was exactly what Halak needed.

The one good habit the Islanders have gotten into has been scoring early in games. Usually this is something that can help a team set the tone, but the Isles have had trouble with maintaining the momentum they get from these fast starts which leads to breakdowns and end up blowing multi-goal leads. You would expect that to happen sometimes against teams like the Predators or Rangers, but not against teams like Edmonton or Buffalo. The Isles never let it get to that point though, playing an overall solid two-way game with Nashville pressing. The whole complexion really could have been different after an early 2nd period penalty by Lubomir Visnovsky but the Isles were able to continue with some of the brief success they've shown on the PK lately.

Brian Strait scored the early goal just one minute into the game off of a great rush by Michael Grabner, and a great feed from Frans Nielsen. Grabner has been a solid add since returning last game and he continued with some strong play on Thursday night. He's needed in top form, especially now that Mikhail Grabovski suffered yet another 'upper body injury' after a huge yet clean hit by Eric Nystrom. Grabner can provide the skill and speed that the Isles would otherwise miss, and these two games are the best we've seen from Grabner in a while.

Johnny Boychuk has finally started to get his slapshots off with more regularity and it was another goal from long range for him on Thursday. Over the past couple of weeks I've alluded to the fact that the Isles had become gun shy when it comes to getting the puck on net from long range, particularly for the defensemen. But Boychuk has not been hesitating as much and has been finding the net - not to mention the back of it more often again.

John Tavares continued his hot pace of late with another two points, including a powerplay goal on a nice second opportunity after a blocked shot and with Pekka Rinne falling down. The Isles still struggled on the man advantage in the game, and had a few chances to really bury the Preds with some of the opportunities given to them but they squandered most of them by trying to get too cute. They did a have a few nice sequences but overall those always went by the wayside when the Isles became their own enemy.

You could really tell that these were two vastly improved teams than prior incarnations of the rosters. They both had strong forechecks and looked like teams that were in sync. The goals that Nashville scored were very nice and tough for Halak to stop, the kind of goals you would expect to see from the likes of skill guys such as Filip Forsberg or James Neal. In the case of Neal, the Isles had a momentary lapse that they paid for.

Nick Leddy and Josh Bailey each scored for the Isles in the 3rd to ice the game off of nice rushes. Leddy received a pass and waited out Rinne just enough to squeeze a shot off the crossbar and in. I don't care that Bailey's goal was not directly put in by him - it was a great move and fake out by Bailey to create that play. I can't recall seeing him skate that fast but he showed great speed and stick work to bear down on the defense and then ultimately Rinne to make them all look silly.

This was a quality game played between two quality teams, and the score is probably a bit misleading. Although they got off to a slow start the Preds did not play poorly by any means and slowly and meticulously worked to get themselves back in the game, capitalizing on some of the chances they had after getting the Isles back on their heels. The Isles made some nice in-game adjustments to prevent the Preds from storming all the way back however, and Halak was really a driving force behind that especially in the 2nd frame.

Now the Isles have a marathon weekend ahead, with a Saturday matinee in Washington and a rare Sunday game at home against Vancouver. The Capitals certainly look like the real deal this year and have been nipping at the Isles heels for much of the year. Meanwhile, the Canucks have some increased pressure to make the playoffs this year after a hot start but have fallen off a bit and are battling with the likes of Calgary, Minnesota and Winnipeg to land one of the final playoff spots. This is a good test weekend for the Isles and they will have to manage their goaltenders and their shifts efficiently, especially with Grabovski out and Kael Mouillierat called up on an emergency basis. I certainly would not expect much from him, despite his torrid scoring pace at the AHL this year. But stranger things have happened, and certainly Colin McDonald has looked good since coming back up so maybe it breathes some life into Mouillierat too.

- Chris

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