April 18, 2015

Isles fall in Game 2, Return Home with Split

The Islanders might want to consider investing in different stick technology for next season, because it seems like they are breaking at the most crucial times this year.

Although the Isles fell 4-3 in Game 2 of their first round match-up with the Washington Capitals, they get to come home with a 1-1 series split and will try and prove that they have taken home ice away from the Caps.

As far as the effort was concerned I don't think throughout the whole game the Isles were bad. The Caps had much better jump to their game and for half of it the Isles did an excellent job on capitalizing on their chances. Philipp Grubauer is an excellent talent in between the pipes but the Isles were able to solve him early and get him on his heels. He didn't have the chance to make any spectacular saves though, which meant that the Isles should have been a bit more aggressive on their attack.

Once the Isles began to have issues with broken sticks in the 2nd period things definitely began to turn around. The Caps were getting extended looks in the offensive zone and the Isles were more trying to play "keep the puck to the outside" rather than hitting the opponent to force turnovers just as they did for much of Game 1. So the end result was not surprising as the Isles blew the 3-1 lead.

When you are in the playoffs, the intensity gets bumped up a notch and for 20 or so minutes in the 2nd and 3rd periods the Isles stopped playing their game and were not aggressive enough on the boards. After Washingon took the 4-3 lead the Isles were getting some of their mojo back and finally found the intensity again but it was too little, too late.

All year long I was frustrated hearing about puck luck but I think for the most part of this game that's what we saw. Washington were relentless and kept pushing at an Isles team that eventually had a few "uh oh" moments with unfortunate timing on the broken sticks. They've had issues getting the puck out when it's 5-on-5 as it is and despite generally doing well with that through these first two games, it essentially became 5-on-4 and the priority changed from getting the puck out to just keeping shots in low percentage areas. The problem with that strategy is that it means someone isn't being covered the way they should be and leads to some excellent second opportunities as we saw with Alex Ovechkin's goal.

The Nicklas Backstrom goal was the worst of the lot in my opinion. The Isles were down a man and were doing a good job of staying out of harms way until Michael Grabner got the puck barely past the opposing blueline and went for a change. And as we've come accustomed to seeing the Caps were able to make a quick up to Backstrom who easily skated into the zone. The Isles were content in backing up into their PK formation, all looking towards the outside to make sure Backstrom's passing options were covered - especially Ovechkin. But none of the defensive players looked at one another, and by the time they did it was too late. Lack of communication and tough defense allowed the tying goal against the Isles. A poor clearing attempt by Nick Leddy after that helped Jason Chimera score a huge goal to put his team ahead for good.

Leddy has been pretty good at the beginning of the series so far, but that was a bad place and time for that. You should never be going up the middle with clearing attempts - especially when you are going weak to avoid icing the puck. The Caps clogged the middle of the ice and kept the puck in. Jaroslav Halak made the initial save but the Isles were still trying to retreat back after the failed clear.

Speaking of Halak I thought he was fine. The Isles really had some brain cramps in front of him which lead to a couple of the goals. He put his rebounds in generally the same areas as Game 1, where the Isles did a good job of limiting the 2nd opportunities. The one bad rebound was the Ovechkin one, but as described earlier there were other unfortunate circumstances going on there.

Halak almost got burned again on an adventure behind the net where he lost his stick, but I tip my cap to him for getting back and making the save, holding the puck against his toe. I thought for sure that was going to be a goal but Halak bailed himself out.

The Isles got much of their energy out of the 4th line again, as Cal Clutterbuck, Casey Cizikas and Matt Martin set the tone early and on multiple shifts. Clutterbuck scored early and it got the Isles other lines going. But as things got scary the hitting stopped - including from the 4th line. With 10 minutes left in the third these guys started to press again and it transferred to the rest of the roster so that was encouraging.

I mentioned puck luck and bounces before, and aside from the broken sticks the Isles had some chances offensively that could have really changed the complexion of the game too. Kyle Okposo missed a breakaway opportunity on Grubauer that could have busted the game wide open and really given the Caps a lot to fight for. Clutterbuck made a nice cross-ice feed to Martin who was streaking towards the net but was draped by a defender, and although Martin got a stick on the puck he pushed it wide of the cage. Thomas Hickey had a nice feed to Brock Nelson and he wasn't able to bury the puck either.

This game was as close as the score would indicate, despite the fact the Isles had the 3-1 lead. Not enough shots on a guy thrust into the starting spot due to Braden Holtby's illness. Not enough luck in their defensive zone when it came to sticks and bounces. It really was a game that could go either way and the ebbs and flows for each side were very indicative of how these two match up with one another.

While it is not good that the Isles gave up a powerplay goal on the Caps only opportunity, it doesn't take away that this PK has been real solid for the past month and even avoided some dangerous moments on the two opportunities that Washington had in Game 1. It is noticeable that the refs are keeping their whistles in their pockets so far this series and if the Isles get back to their game I think it can bode well for these two upcoming games at the Coliseum.

The Isles will undoubtedly be amped to play in front of their home crowd which we can expect to be raucous, of course. They will need to take a hold of the momentum and feed off of that because the Caps have a new life in the series and will come out flying again. Despite the shot discrepancy in Game 2, the Isles are not far off. I like their chances if they can keep the game at 5-on-5 and sustain the intensity throughout the game as they did on Wednesday. Make it difficult on Sunday afternoon and the Caps could easily feel like they are on their heels again.

- Chris

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