March 15, 2015

Isles Struggle in Weekend Back-to-back vs. Ottawa, Montreal

The Isles entered the weekend with some excitement after announcing they re-signed Johnny Boychuk to a 7-year contract extension, however they were unable to replicate that excitement on the ice.

In fact, the games and the overall results were the same as the game against the Rangers on Tuesday night - close, but not close enough.

The Isles didn't play poorly against the Ottawa Senators or Montreal Canadiens, however in some cases they were their own worst enemy. They have fallen back into this habit of being gun shy, especially on the powerplay and have resorted to trying fancy passing plays in order to create scoring chances rather than getting pucks towards the net.

Since Kyle Okposo made his return Tuesday the Isles have played three games and have scored three total goals. Granted, they did run into some goaltenders that are playing in another dimension right now - Cam Talbot, Andrew Hammond (!) and Carey Price - but they did not do themselves any favors. Of course they were the closest in that game Tuesday against the Rangers.

The Senators were a team fighting for their playoff lives and the whole reason they are in the conversation is because of Hammond. And coming into Long Island on Friday night he didn't disappoint as he made 34 saves on the 35 shots that he faced. The Isles going 0-for-3 on the powerplay did not help their cause. Similarly, Price stopped 35 of 36 on Saturday and made more impressive saves than Hammond had to the previous night. Neither Jaroslav Halak or Michal Neuvirth played poorly. As a matter of fact, I really liked what I saw from Neuvirth on Saturday night and he showed us what he could be capable of. His reactions were quick and he did an excellent job of containing most of the rebound chances.

Montreal is a team that the Isles always seem to have trouble solving but they play a very solid style of hockey. They don't have those big, in-your-face players but they get the job done. With the way they seem to continuously block shots they remind me of the 2004 Tampa Bay Lightning, another team that wasn't composed of gritty players but was built on speed and structure more than anything.

The Isles didn't chip and chase as much against the Ottawa Senators on Friday night and I felt that this really cost them any chances to get control of the game. The Senators are a quick team that doesn't take many risks on offense and prefer to try taking care of their own end first, so trying to take it to them and going aggressively on the forecheck seems to be the way to handle them. The Isles didn't do that.

Conversely, after starting off a bit slowly on Saturday against Montreal, the Isles began to dump and chase more in the 2nd period and did take control a bit although they ran into the Price issue. But the Isles were dominating the physical play and winning some of the board battles. What ailed them after that though was weak passing attempts, and frequently into traffic.

It seems lately the Isles are living and dying by what John Tavares does or doesn't do and this held true in both of these games. The blind, behind the back passes have crept back into his repertoire the last couple of games and he'll have to get back to the simple things in order to help his team win games rather than fall short, just as he did on Monday in the comeback over Toronto.

The other thing that had me perplexed was the decision with the line-ups. It's pretty clear at this point that Okposo came back a tad early and perhaps needed some more rushes in practice to get his timing and chemistry down with his teammates, especially considering he has not seen exclusive time back up on the top line with Tavares. But to get Frans Nielsen into Saturday's game Jack Capuano elected to scratch Ryan Strome. And in order to rest Lubomir Visnovsky, we saw Matt Donovan for the first time since January. Not to mention Brian Strait has found a spot for the time being due to injuries.

Although Donovan started off with a couple of good shifts he also was the culprit on having issues getting the puck out of the zone and a few times passed the puck into traffic, all in limited time. It makes matters worse when the Isles have been trying to deal without Nick Leddy, and you can see how much his absence has hurt the defense especially when it comes to moving the puck out of harms way.

At any rate, the Isles still haven't done enough to get these close games however they have not played poorly. These results are unfortunate and of course are not coming at an opportune time but in many cases it's better to get these out of their system now rather than in the playoffs. I believe that this is why Okposo returned when he did too, to give him game situations to get his game in shape for a month from now rather than missing out on some crucial opportunities to get his legs back.

The Isles will no doubt benefit from having some of these off days and will get back at it on Tuesday night against the Chicago Blackhawks, a team that they've matched-up well with in recent years and is also missing Patrick Kane for the rest of the season. However, that has not stopped them from continuing to find ways to win games.

- Chris

Tune into NYI FYI at 7 PM on Sunday night as we discuss the week that was. Bring your comments and questions to the chatroom, too!

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