Islanders return from All-Star break, for better or worse

As the New York Islanders get back to work after the All-Star break, hosting the Minnesota Wild at Barclays Center tonight, I must admit I’m worried about them. With a difficult schedule ahead — 18 of their next 28 games are on the road — the possibility of another second-half swoon is quite realistic. The Islanders limped to the finish line last spring, and it cost them home-ice advantage in the first round of the postseason against Washington. The disappointment of that Game 7 loss still stings Islander fans, who have been waiting since 1993 to see their team win a playoff series.

Through 47 games, the Islanders have 56 points and stand third in the Metropolitan Division (25-16-6). Through 47 games last season, they had 65 points and led the division (32-14-1). One of the most glaring differences has been their overtime record — 5-6 so far this season, but 11-1 at this point last season. The Isles have not found the new 3-on-3 format to their liking, losing three of the five games settled in that fashion. All-Star captain John Tavares, who scored four OT winners last season, has none this season.

So perhaps the Islanders’ lofty standing in the first half of 2014-15 was inflated a bit by their prowess in 4-on-4 overtimes and shootouts. That prowess was no help at all to them in the playoffs, and it showed.

That said, there is much to like about the 2015-16 Islanders:

Penalty killing — The Isles are No. 2 in the league when short-handed, killing off 87.2 percent, including a string of 42 in a row. This is a vast improvement from the start of last season, when they were struggling to implement new assistant coach Greg Cronin’s penalty kill. Now Cronin is in his second year, and his methods have become second nature to the penalty killers. There’s been another key, too. …

Goaltending — The save percentages while on the PK for Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss rank the Islanders’ goalies among the NHL’s best. Halak seemed to tire toward the end of last season, when neither Chad Johnson nor Michal Neuvirth proved a reliable backup. This season, both goalies have been outstanding, so Halak has a better chance of entering the postseason fully energized. Then again, the Isles might also make a playoff run with the No. 2 guy between the pipes, simply because Greiss has been of equal quality.

Other positives — Brock Nelson has emerged as a goal scorer with a team-high 19, just one less than his career high. Frans Nielsen is one of the NHL’s top two-way forwards, and Cal Clutterbuck has scored 10 goals as a fourth-line center/penalty killer. The Isles also have been better finishers, pulling games out in the third period instead of blowing late leads and relying on their OT dramatics to bail them out.

So, what’s not to like about the 2015-16 Islanders? Plenty:

Lamp lighters lacking — Anders Lee, a 25-goal scorer last season, has just six goals this season. Ryan Strome, thought to be another of the Islanders’ rising stars, was demoted to the AHL for a time because he was so ineffective. But the biggest disappointment has been Tavares. After finishing second in the league with 86 points last year, when he was edged out for the Art Ross Trophy on the season’s final day, Tavares has been nowhere near that point-a-game pace. He has managed just 34 points in 44 games, and his minus-5 rating indicates he has been on the ice for too many even-strength goals.

Putt-putt power play — The Islanders didn’t score a single power-play goal in last spring’s seven-game playoff loss, and their inability to score with the man-advantage has carried over to this season. They rank in the bottom half of the league — 19th — with a 17.5 percent power-play success rate.

Division doldrums — The Islanders are just 5-11-2 against their rivals in the Metropolitan Division, and stand just one point ahead of fourth-place Pittsburgh as the schedule resumes. They could fall out of a playoff position very easily, and will need a strong finish to make the tournament for a second straight year.

Posted February 2, 2016

Sources: Associated Press; ESPN; hockeyDB.com; lighthousehockey.com; Newsday; NHL.com.

Arbour’s Islanders echoed the lessons of a respected teacher

The cornerstone of a hockey dynasty was faith. And with his team trailing three games to none in the quarterfinal round of the 1975 Stanley Cup playoffs, New York Islanders coach Al Arbour showed the door to the nonbelievers.

He did it, the late J.P. Parise recalled, before the Islanders hit the ice for practice between Games 3 and 4. “He showed all the confidence in the world, and belief in us,” Parise told MSG Networks in 2012. “And he just said, ‘If anybody who thinks we can’t come back and beat that team, I want you to leave right away, and we’re going to go with people who are willing to work and do this.’ It was amazing. … We didn’t dare disappoint him, but more it was just a reassurance and belief in ourselves that this was something that we could do.”

The Islanders went on to defeat the Pittsburgh Penguins in an epic comeback, becoming only the second team in any major North American sport ever to overcome a 3-0 series deficit. In the very next round, they nearly duplicated the feat, coming back after losing the first three to the Flyers to force a seventh game in Philadelphia. The Islanders lost Game 7 to those “Broad Street Bullies,” who went on to win the Cup for a second straight year. But in just their third season of existence, Arbour’s Islanders had made a statement.

No longer were they the hapless expansion team that had managed a record-low 30 points in 78 games only two years earlier. Their 8-1 record in elimination games, starting with Parise’s overtime goal in Game 3 of a best-of-three opening series against the Rangers, proved they could thrive in the clutch — despite the fact that the Islanders had never made the playoffs before and most of the players had zero postseason experience prior to that spring.

The following fall, my seventh-grade homeroom teacher at Sacred Heart School in Yonkers, N.Y., happened to be an Islander fan. His name was Mr. Thomas Sepi. In that 1975-76 school year, I was one of his pupils for both religion (it was a Catholic school) and American history. I often would talk about sports with him after class, and he sometimes sounded like a coach when he was making a teaching point.

“Never give up,” Mr. Sepi was fond of saying.

The Islanders never gave up because Al Arbour never gave up. And having Mr. Sepi as my teacher at that time deepened my appreciation of the Islanders’ never-say-die team identity.

” ‘Can’t’ is the quitter’s national anthem,” Mr. Sepi would tell the class. Hours later, I would tune in to the Islanders’ game on WOR Channel 9 and see their can-do, no-quit attitude fuel their rise to the top of the National Hockey League. Or, if the game was at Nassau Coliseum and not available on over-the-air TV, I might listen to it on the radio. Mr. Sepi was the one who informed me that John Sterling — yes, Yankee fans, that John Sterling — was the Islanders’ radio play-by-play voice back then. More than once, I heard Mr. Sepi imitate Sterling’s trademark call of “GOAL! ISLANDER GOAL! ISLANDER GOAL!”

As inspired as I was by the Islanders’ perseverance, however, I still found it difficult to fully embrace the sport of hockey. The goon tactics that tarnished the NHL’s image for so many years were repulsive to me. I started collecting all kinds of sports articles in the mid-’70s, including a Time magazine cover story with the headline, “Hockey: War on Ice,” and a Sports Illustrated cover showing the Rangers and Islanders brawling under the headline, “A Violent Sport Turns Vicious.” I even recall watching with my brother when a Rangers-Flyers game turned so ugly that I didn’t want to see any more — I left the room.

For me to be willing to overlook all that, a team had to make quite an impression — and Arbour’s Islanders did. They helped me to see hockey in a new light, see it as a game of skill and courage. Meanwhile, back at school, Mr. Sepi made me proud to root for a hockey team that never gave up. So I kept on rooting for the Islanders.  And in the decade that followed, they achieved a level of success that went far beyond my wildest seventh-grade dreams.

Four times in five years, the Islanders unveiled a rookie who would go on to a Hall of Fame career: Denis Potvin in 1973-74, Arbour’s first season as Islander coach; Clark Gillies, Mr. Sepi’s favorite Islander, in 1974-75; Bryan Trottier in 1975-76, and Mike Bossy in 1977-78. Each was acquired through the draft, and each made his debut at an age barely old enough to drink beer legally.

“There’s so many things that I can say about Al,” Potvin said. “I first met him when I was 19 years old and he coached me for 13 consecutive years. I don’t know how many athletes who have had that pleasure.”

“He was like a real father figure to all of us,” said Gillies. “We were a bunch of young kids. It was like having 20 young boys in the family and he was the father that kept us all under control.”

Arbour’s Islanders posted 100-point seasons and returned to the semifinals in 1976 and ’77. They were eliminated by the Montreal dynasty each time, but were the only playoff opponent to avoid a sweep against the powerful Canadiens those two years. They could exit the playoff stage with heads held high.

Then came two playoff upsets that tested Arbour’s faith in his boys like never before.

The Isles won their division for the first time in ’78, but were ousted by the Maple Leafs in OT of Game 7 in a series marred by the kind of violence that gave hockey a bad name. One story by an Islanders beat reporter began, “Toronto is a clean city with a dirty hockey team.” I’ll never forget the picture in the paper of Bossy, flat on his back, staring at the ceiling of Maple Leaf Gardens after being knocked out cold by a cheap shot in Game 6.

The Islanders entered the 1979 playoffs believing this would be their year. It wasn’t. After finishing first in the entire league during the regular season, they were upset by the Rangers in a six-game semifinal series that turned New York on its collective ear. Even the girls in my high school were talking about it. As columnist Mike Lupica wrote in the Daily News, “The Rangers and Islanders have spoiled us. New York will never forget these hockey games.”

For Arbour, it was time to give his boys some tough love.

“It was the same thing as in the Toronto series,” Arbour said. “They felt sorry for themselves, losing right in their own backyard in a series they were supposed to win and didn’t. But it was our own doing. I didn’t want them to forget it. I wanted them to taste it for a while.”

But Arbour and the Isles were just getting started. They went on to win the Stanley Cup four consecutive years. From 1980-84, they won 19 playoff series in a row — an astonishing record that might stand forever. They were so dominant that except for two memorable best-of-five openers that came down to an overtime goal in Game 5, the Isles never faced elimination during the entire streak. Not once did they need a Game 7.

After the announcement Friday that Arbour had died at the age of 82, having battled dementia and Parkinson’s disease, the tributes came pouring in. Lupica recalled how Arbour encouraged reporters to interview his players, rather than basking in the attention and taking the credit himself.

Arbour finished his career No. 2 in NHL history in coaching wins, and his 740 victories with the Islanders are the most by any coach with one team. But he was also remembered for his humility, decency and kindness. Former Newsday beat writer Pat Calabria said that one day when he fell ill at the practice rink, Arbour stunned him by offering him a lift home.

“Here was one of the great coaches of all time driving me to my house. I can’t think of another coach of that stature who would do something like that,” Calabria said.

“You’ll never find a better man, or a better coach, for that matter,” longtime Islanders broadcaster Jiggs McDonald told Newsday.

Many of his former players including Gillies, Trottier and Brent Sutter (who was Islander teammates with his brother Duane) referred to Arbour as a father figure. And like a good dad, Arbour told his boys that he believed in them.

“Al Arbour was a man that left us not only feeling like champions, but left us with a lot of great memories that we can carry on through life,” Potvin said.

“Al used to say that negative energy that you’re feeling, turn it into a positive energy. That has never left me. I know many of my teammates must feel the very same way. He just never felt that anything was insurmountable.”

Posted August 28, 2015

Sources: Islanders’ team website; NHL.com; MSG Networks; Sportsnet; The New York Islanders: Countdown to a Dynasty by Barry Wilner (Leisure Press, 1983); Total Stanley Cup: The Official Encyclopedia of the Stanley Cup (Total Sports Publishing Inc., 2000); Time magazine (February 24, 1975); Sports Illustrated (November 17, 1975); The (Yonkers) Herald Statesman (April 25, 1978); Daily News; Newsday.

’Hawks’ ‘dynasty’ ushers in Chicago’s greatest hockey era

As commissioner Gary Bettman addressed the crowd Monday night at United Center, he spoke a word that has not been associated with the NHL in a long, long time. “Well, Chicago,” Bettman said, “that’s three Cups in six seasons. I’d say you have a dynasty.”

The Blackhawks clinched this championship — also their second in three years — with a 2-0 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning. As it had in 2010 and again in 2013, Chicago needed six games to finish the job in the Stanley Cup Final. But unlike their two previous championships in this run, the Blackhawks did not need a shocking, dramatic finish to pull Game 6 out of the fire. Workhorse defenseman Duncan Keith, who logged 30:19 of ice time, erased what little suspense there was about who would be named MVP of the playoffs by following up his own shot and knocking in the rebound for the lead in the second period. On a 3-on-2 break in the third, Brad Richards looked toward goal as if to shoot and made a perfect pass across the slot to Patrick Kane, who fired it into a wide-open net for the insurance goal. Corey Crawford, in a last-ditch effort to unseat Keith as Conn Smythe Trophy winner, made 25 saves for the shutout.

Kane gave Chicago the only two-goal lead for either team in the series, as this title set came up just 5:14 short of being the first Stanley Cup Final without a single multi-goal lead. As it was, Game 6 turned out to be the only game of the series that did not have the winning goal break a tie in the third period. None of the six games went to overtime, but Tampa Bay-Chicago was a closely contested series nonetheless.

Tampa Bay’s top scoring threat, Steven Stamkos, hit the crossbar with a shot in the first period, which was scoreless despite the Blackhawks’ huge 13-4 edge in shots on goal. The Lightning came out flying at the start of the second period, a stretch during which Stamkos was again frustrated; a pass sent him skating in alone on Crawford, but he couldn’t lift the shot over the goalie’s leg pad because the puck was rolling on its edge. Chicago went more than 10 minutes without a shot on goal as Tampa Bay kept applying the pressure.

Take this scenario and apply it to another team and it likely would lead to defeat. If the Islanders, for example, failed to finish their scoring chances in the first period and allowed their opponents to buzz around the Isles’ net in the second, I’d be worried. Not with these Blackhawks. At no time during Tampa Bay’s push did I think Chicago would lose. And with Tampa Bay looking to make a line change as the second period neared its conclusion, the Blackhawks pounced. Richards passed through center ice to Kane, who passed to Keith, who fired a shot as he streaked into the zone, then beat Tampa Bay’s Cedric Paquette to the rebound and knocked it past goalie Ben Bishop.

In Game 6 of the 2010 Stanley Cup Final at Philadelphia, Kane clinched the ’Hawks Cup with a stunning overtime winner that went over the goal line but disappeared from view under the base of the net — the red light did not go on, and Kane danced around as if he were the only person in the building who realized he had scored. Against Tampa Bay, however, Kane’s goal was much easier to see, and it prompted the crowd of 22,424 to start the celebration. For the first time since 1938, the Blackhawks were winning the Stanley Cup in front of their own fans.

The Blackhawks have been around since 1926, and this current period must rank as the most successful era the club has ever enjoyed. Three of the franchise’s six NHL championships have come in the last six seasons. Bobby Hull was feared for his powerful slap shot and — helped by teammate Stan Mikita — had five 50-goal seasons for Chicago. But the era of Hull and Mikita, which began in the final years of the NHL’s “Original Six” period, brought only one Stanley Cup party to Chicago. After winning the Cup in 1961, the Black Hawks (two words back then) endured a series of disappointments, losing Stanley Cup Finals in 1962, ’65, ’71 and ’73. Of the four, the hardest defeat to swallow had to be the ’71 Final — they led the series against the underdog Canadiens 3-2 before losing Game 6 in Montreal and Game 7 in Chicago. The Blackhawks of Jeremy Roenick and Ed Belfour had some good years, too, but their only appearance in a Cup Final resulted in a four-game sweep for Pittsburgh in 1992.

Now those difficult times are merely steps the Blackhawks had to take in their climb to hockey’s pinnacle.

Much of the credit for building the Chicago machine belongs to general manager Stan Bowman. Born in Montreal when his father — the legendary Scotty Bowman — was coaching the Canadiens’ dynasty of the 1970s, Stan in 2010 became the youngest GM to put together a Stanley Cup-winning team. The 1995 graduate of Notre Dame joined the Blackhawks’ organization in 2000 as special assistant to the general manager, and the rise of his team has paralleled his ascendancy up the decision-making ladder.

The Blackhawks’ website acclaims Bowman as “the first GM to win two titles in the salary cap era.” He has done this by avoiding sentimental attachments and correctly assessing which players are must-haves and which are expendable.

When the Blackhawks won the Cup in 2010, Antti Niemi was their goaltender. But the playoff hero from Finland became a free agent soon thereafter, and Blackhawks management allowed him to sign with the San Jose Sharks that September. It must have been difficult to part with the goalie who ended Chicago’s 49-year Stanley Cup drought, especially since Niemi was just 26 years old at the time. But Bowman saw potential in Crawford, who played only one game in 2009-10 but took over as the ’Hawks’ starting goalie the following season.

Forwards Troy Brouwer and Andrew Ladd and defensemen Dustin Byfuglien and Brian Campbell also played roles during Chicago’s 2010 title run — and all of them were traded. Brouwer’s size and toughness fit the Washington Capitals’ physical style of play. Ladd and Byfuglien (traded by Chicago in separate deals a week apart) have remained teammates through stops in Atlanta and Winnipeg, as the Thrashers relocated and became the Jets. Campbell won the Lady Byng Trophy as a veteran All-Star for the Florida Panthers.

All quality players, yet within three weeks of the ticker-tape parade in Chicago, none of them were Blackhawks anymore.

Three years later, when the playoffs went deeper into June because of the lockout, Bowman had even less time to determine who should stay and who should go. In Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final at Boston, Bryan Bickell scored the tying goal with Crawford pulled for an extra attacker and Dave Bolland scored the winner just 17 seconds later. In a stunning turn of events, the scenario went from headed to Chicago for Game 7, to headed for overtime, to the Blackhawks have won the championship.

That was June 24. On June 30 — less than a week after scoring a Stanley Cup-winning goal — Bolland was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

It sounds cold and impersonal, but such is life as an NHL general manager in a salary-cap system. Builders of past NHL dynasties, such as Bill Torrey of the four-time champion 1980s Islanders, didn’t face such collectively bargained financial restrictions.

“We were like, ‘Boy, we could stay here forever and keep this thing going,’ ” Islanders great Bryan Trottier told NHL.com. “The trend now is free agency, movement, the salary cap, and Chicago has been capable of keeping it together.”

Mere days before the regular season started last October, Bowman sent defenseman Nick Leddy to the Islanders for three prospects in what was clearly a salary dump. With Keith, two-time champion Johnny Oduya and three-time champions Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson, Bowman knew his blue-line crew would be strong even without Leddy, who had been a key player during the 2013 Cup run. The Islanders signed Leddy to a seven-year, $38.5 million contract in February, preventing the 24-year-old from becoming a free agent this summer. Bowman couldn’t match those numbers, but taking Leddy off the payroll made it easier for the Blackhawks to absorb the twin eight-year extensions given last July to star forwards Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, each of whom earns $10.5 million per season.

One thing Bowman has not changed is his man behind the bench. Now Joel Quenneville has more championships as a coach than Mario Lemieux won as a player.

“It’s the greatest feeling in the world,” Quenneville said. “Once you do it once, you can’t wait to do it again.”

Only Scotty Bowman (1,244) and Islanders dynasty coach Al Arbour (782) have more regular-season coaching wins than Quenneville (754). So the Blackhawks have Toews and Kane, a clutch goalie in Crawford, a Hall of Fame-bound coach, and a set of four tireless defensemen who can do the work of six. Chicago has so much depth on its forward lines that Bickell, a Cup hero in the 2013 finale, was a healthy scratch for Game 6 against Tampa Bay.

This is the greatest era in Chicago’s hockey history — an era when the commissioner isn’t the only mover and shaker proclaiming the Blackhawks a dynasty. Two days after the Cup clincher, in announcing a parade that has become a biennial event in the Windy City, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel joined the chorus.

“The City of Chicago is so proud of the Blackhawks,” he said, “which is why we are going to throw them a celebration that only Chicago can throw, a celebration worthy of a hockey dynasty.”

Filed June 16, 2015, updated June 17, 2015

Sources: Total Stanley Cup: The Official Encyclopedia of the Stanley Cup; The Associated Press; Hockey Hall of Fame; hockey-reference.com; NHL.com; NBC Sports.

 

Parity plus low scores equal postseason drama in NHL

The NHL went 29 years, starting in 1972 and including 2000, with only two Stanley Cup Finals going the full seven games. Ten times in that span, the title series was a four-game sweep, including four consecutive following the Rangers’ epic seven-game battle with Vancouver in 1994.

Since Colorado defeated New Jersey in 2001, however, six of the 13 Stanley Cup Finals have been seven-gamers — and none have been sweeps. Even Los Angeles’ victory over the Rangers last spring was an ordeal, with three of the five games decided in overtime — after the finalists had endured five seven-game series and one six-gamer in the first three rounds.

So if you think watching your favorite hockey team in the playoffs is more stressful than it used to be, you’re right. As Mike Emrick might say while calling another nail-biter on NBC, this sport is not for the faint of heart.

This is an era of parity in the NHL. Partly because of the salary cap, there is neither a dominant team nor a transcendent scorer.

Goaltenders are bigger. Gone are the days when Bernie Parent and Billy Smith, both 5-foot-10, could lead their teams to multiple championships. Today’s game belongs to tall goalies such as Tampa Bay’s Ben Bishop, who at 6-7 is the latest obstacle in the Rangers’ road to the Cup, and Frederik Andersen, the 6-3 Dane who stopped 32 of 33 shots as Anaheim beat Chicago in Game 1 of the Western Conference final.

As if the goaltenders’ height and reach weren’t enough to make scoring a challenge, their pads are bigger than they used to be, too. Rules prevent netminders from ballooning the way Garth Snow did in leading the Flyers to the 1997 Stanley Cup Final, but some observers (including yours truly) believe that goalie equipment needs to slim down to 1970s or ’80s dimensions. There simply isn’t enough net to shoot at when big goalies are wearing big pads.

All game long, forwards scratch and claw to deflect a shot from the point, block the goalie’s vision, lure him out of position, or knock in a rebound. When the shooter faces a goalie who is not screened, it takes a perfectly timed shot taken with uncanny accuracy to score — such as Ondrej Palat’s one-timer for Tampa Bay in Saturday’s 2-1 loss to the Rangers.

No wonder that in the last two years, only one player (Sidney Crosby, with 104 last season) has been able to register more than 87 points over a regular-season schedule. Yet while scoring is down, comebacks are commonplace, in both series and individual games.

The Rangers in the last round became the first club in NHL history to rally in consecutive years from 3-games-to-1 down. And of the four comebacks from 0-3 series deficits in league annals, two have come in the last five years — Philadelphia over Boston in 2010, and Los Angeles over San Jose last season.

The Ducks led wire-to-wire today, but in four of their first eight playoff wins this spring, Anaheim trailed after two periods. That’s nothing compared to what Boston did to break Toronto’s heart two years ago, when the Bruins — who trailed 4-1 in Game 7 five-and-a-half minutes into the third period — scored two goals 31 seconds apart with the goalie pulled, then completed the stunning rally in overtime.

Those Bruins ultimately fell victim to another kind of frantic finish — the last-minute goal that breaks a tie. In Game 6 of the 2013 Stanley Cup Final, Chicago scored the tying and winning goals just 17 seconds apart, evening the score with the goalie pulled and adding the Cup clincher with 58.3 seconds remaining. Just like that, a 2-1 win to force a Game 7 became a 3-2 loss and a handshake line before a shocked Boston crowd.

During this year’s Eastern Conference semifinals, Tampa Bay scored with 1.1 seconds remaining in regulation to beat Montreal, less than a week after Washington had scored with 1.3 ticks left to stun the Rangers. The score of both of those games was 2-1. In fact, 10 of the Rangers’ last 15 playoff games have ended 2-1, part of a league-record stretch of 15 consecutive one-goal playoff games spanning two years. This is in stark contrast to the Islanders’ stretch of four straight Cups from 1980-83, when they played just three 2-1 games and 16 decided by one goal — over a span of 78 playoff games.

And I haven’t even mentioned what it’s like to watch overtime, when there are no commercial breaks for the first 10 minutes and play continues for such long stretches that you can’t take your eyes off the ice. This isn’t basketball, where the last two minutes of a close game are usually interrupted by fouls and timeouts. When the game is on the line in hockey, coaches let the players play.

So if you have a heart condition, keep your cardiologist close at hand. Every goal is huge because these games are low-scoring, but no outcome is predictable because this is the NHL of the 21st century.

Filed May 17, 2015

Sources: NHL.com; Hockey-Reference.com; Total Stanley Cup: The Official Encyclopedia of the Stanley Cup; 60 Moments That Changed the Game (special edition of The Hockey News).

 

Amazing numbers favor Rangers in Game 7 vs. Capitals

Any hockey fan — even a disappointed Islander fan like me — can see that the Rangers and Capitals have played one heck of a series and that their playoff rivalry is the hottest the NHL has produced in the last 10 years. This is the fifth time in seven seasons the Blueshirts have faced Washington in the playoffs, and the fourth time the series has required seven games to determine a winner. Amazing.

In fact, this series is loaded with amazing numbers. Start with this: the Caps are on the verge of losing a series they led 3-1 for the fifth time in their star-crossed playoff history. And the Rangers, who won Games 5 through 7 to oust Pittsburgh last season, are on the verge of becoming the first team in NHL playoff history to overcome 3-1 series deficits in consecutive years.

The blown leads and playoff comebacks are naturally reflected in the teams’ records in elimination games. When it has a chance to finish a series, Washington is a miserable 3-10 in its last 13. When facing elimination, the Rangers are a sparkling 13-3 in their last 16. So while the Caps have built a reputation as a team that can’t seal the deal, the Blueshirts have become known as a team tougher to kill than Rasputin.

Those reputations have tarnished or polished the legacies of the series’ biggest stars — “The Great 8” for Washington and the man who wears No. 30 for New York.

Alex Ovechkin and Henrik Lundqvist both broke in as NHL rookies in the fall of 2005. Ovechkin has never played in a conference final; Lundqvist is one victory away from his third conference final in four seasons.

Historical trends say he’ll get it. Lundqvist is 9-0 in elimination games at Madison Square Garden, and the Rangers have never lost a Game 7 there. New York has won a league-record five consecutive Game 7s overall, including two against the Capitals, with Lundqvist allowing just four goals in those five games. Although he has yet to have his name engraved on the Stanley Cup, Lundqvist ranks among the greatest postseason goaltenders in history. His career goals-against average in the playoffs (2.18 in 103 games) is better than that of four-time champion Patrick Roy (2.30 in 247 games).

Much was made of Ovechkin’s victory “guarantee” Monday, but the Caps’ captain was only giving his teammates a vote of confidence while placing more of the spotlight on himself. His comment to Lundqvist after scoring in Game 1 — when an on-ice microphone picked up his “All series, baby” — was much more of a taunt. Since his highlight-reel goal in Game 2, however, the NHL’s leading goal scorer during the regular season has not been able to back up his boast.

The Capitals’ main scoring threat recently hasn’t been Ovechkin but Joel Ward, who used to be the other wing on Ovechkin’s line. That was until Game 6 Sunday night, when Washington coach Barry Trotz created a new unit with Ward and Jason Chimera between center Evgeny Kuznetsov. Each of those players scored, accounting for Washington’s three goals in a 4-3 loss. The Caps fell behind by three goals in the third period but dominated thereafter — they had 34 shot attempts in the final 14:56, while the Rangers had none. Lundqvist finished with 42 saves, but made just 10 in the third period as his legion of shot blockers bravely put themselves in the way of the Caps’ barrage.

The end of Game 6 also included a 6-on-4 power play, as the Capitals benefited from the officials’ incorrect call of delay of game. Unable to lure the Rangers’ patient penalty killers out of the shooting lanes, Washington failed to capitalize on the break, wasting valuable time with passes along the perimeter. Their hesitance to shoot and lack of movement inside the Rangers’ zone marked the standstill Caps as a power play that’s struggling with its confidence; they looked more dangerous playing 5-on-5 than they did 6-on-4. Part of the problem is Nicklas Backstrom, the center on Ovechkin’s line, who has made an impact on the ice only during those GEICO commercials that appear on NBC Sports Network telecasts far too frequently.

In Game 5, Braden Holtby was looking impenetrable and the Capitals were 101 seconds away from clinching the series. Since then, Holtby has allowed Chris Kreider’s tying goal, Ryan McDonagh’s goal on the Rangers’ sixth shot of overtime, and four goals on just 28 shots in Game 6. With today’s temperature in New York reaching the high 80s, the Capitals can only hope their cooled-off goaltender heats up again — fast.

Filed May 12, 2015

Sources: NHL.com, NBC Sports Network

 

Game 7: Capitals 2, Islanders 1 Farewell, Nassau Coliseum

For a while, it looked as if the Islanders might win this thing, even after being badly outplayed over the first two periods. First, Washington goalie Braden Holtby allowed an easy shot by Frans Nielsen to slip through his pads and tie the score 3:13 into the third. Then Jaroslav Halak reacted to a fluke bounce off the boards and robbed Jay Beagle when he had a wide-open net to shoot at. Troy Brouwer soon pounced on an awful giveaway, but Halak stoned him too, and Brouwer was so frustrated he made a motion as if to snap his stick in half.

In the end, the difference maker in the series turned out to be a talented young center from Russia who had scored just 11 goals during the regular season.

Evgeny Kuznetsov wears the year he was born (92) on his back — he turns 23 in May — and this is his first full season in the NHL. Unlike the Islanders’ 24-year-old Anders Lee, also in his first full season, Kuznetsov blossomed into an increasingly dangerous threat as the series went along, scoring three goals in the Capitals’ last two victories. This was in stark contrast to Lee, who was second on the team with 25 goals during the season but so ineffective during the playoffs that he was a healthy scratch for Games 6 and 7.

At 12:42 of the third period, Kuznetsov took matters into his own hands. Closely watched by Nielsen along the boards to Halak’s left, the left-handed shooter suddenly sped across the slot, drew Halak down to the ice and flipped a wrist shot past the goaltender for the series-winning goal. The Isles’ best chance to score after that came when Kyle Okposo waited and waited and waited for Holtby to give him some net to shoot at — only to fire his shot wide.

This defeat, however, was to bring one final indignity upon the Islanders.

For the first 57 minutes of the game, not a single penalty was called. In the second, Alex Ovechkin got away with slamming Isles defenseman Thomas Hickey into the boards face-first, and Joel Ward whacked Johnny Boychuk in the head with his stick just before shoving in the rebound that gave the Caps a 1-0 lead at 18:35 of the period.

The only penalty in the entire game came at 17:06 of the third, when Caps defenseman John Carlson was called for roughing Casey Cizikas. And with their season on the line, the Islanders’ power play once again failed to produce even a scoring chance, never mind consistent pressure in the Capitals’ zone. Halak was pulled with about a minute left, but the attack deserted the Islanders when they needed it most.

The Islanders, a team that averaged nearly 34 shots on goal per game during the season, managed just 11 — or one period’s worth — for the entire game tonight. Five of those were by Boychuk, a defenseman; Nielsen and Okposo were the only Islander forwards to get a shot on net, as John Tavares and the rest were completely bottled up. The Isles had just 20 shot attempts — not shots on goal, attempts — through two periods, while the Capitals had 47. That’s how much Washington dominated puck possession for the first 40 minutes, most of which were spent in the Islanders’ zone.

Despite all that, Halak’s goaltending made the game winnable (he finished with 24 saves and was named the game’s third star). And with the puck bouncing the Islanders’ way for much of the third period, I dared to dream.

But instead of witnessing the Islanders’ first playoff series win since 1993, I saw Evgeny Kuznetsov steal the spotlight from his countryman Ovechkin. And instead of forcing overtime in the final minutes, the Islanders’ power play finished the series with the same numerical ineptitude as the winless 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers — 0 for 14.

So there will be no more Islander games at Nassau Coliseum, no playoff matchup with the rival Rangers to turn New York into Hockeytown USA. The postseason series I’ve been dreaming about for months — a series that even had some non-hockey fans on sports-talk radio buzzing with anticipation — will not come about.

Sigh.

This is not acceptable to me. Washington was a beatable opponent for the Islanders, who came close to taking the series in a sweep. They had a two-goal lead in the second period — and were facing a backup goalie — in Game 2, and they lost Game 4 in overtime. Missed opportunities — beginning with their failure to secure home ice in the final week of the season — came back to haunt the Islanders, who could have had control of the series but instead needed a Herculean effort Saturday to force a Game 7.

At least Nassau Coliseum went out with a victory. Still, the Old Barn deserved better than a first-round exit, and the fans who brought so much noise and energy to the outdated arena deserved better than Rangers vs. Capitals in the second round.

Filed April 27, 2015

Sources: NHL.com, fantasysp.com, MSG Network

Game 6: Islanders 3, Capitals 1 This one’s for the Old Barn

Nassau Coliseum is open for NHL business for at least two more days, thanks to the Islanders’ most gutsy, most important and perhaps most physical win of the season. The goal that broke a 1-1 tie in the third period today was unlike any goal I have ever seen, and I have been a hockey fan for 40 years. The empty-net goal that sealed the win was scored by a fourth-line winger who richly deserved to be on the score sheet. The cheap shots as the final horn sounded give me hope that the Capitals are becoming frustrated and that maybe, just maybe, they might succumb to the pressure when Game 7 is played in their building Monday night.

Today, like Game 4, was a bruising battle in which players on both sides smashed into each other all game long. The physical price that hockey demands in the quest for the Stanley Cup leaves me shaking my head in awe sometimes. Players in this series have shown that kind of courage. I think of Lubomir Visnovsky in Game 3, getting crushed by the much bigger Alex Ovechkin, then bouncing right back to fire a shot that Kyle Okposo deflected in for the lead. I think of Game 4, when Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik rushed off to the dressing room, his face bleeding, then reappeared on the bench a few minutes later with a visor attached to his helmet, ready to put himself in harm’s way again.

Today’s courage award goes to John Tavares. The Islanders’ captain did all he could to carry his team on his back. He scored the first goal, skating to his left and firing back to his right to fool goalie Braden Holtby. He got involved in the physical play more than he usually does, and was in the penalty box for a slashing penalty when John Carlson tied the score with just 4.3 seconds left in the first period. That’s how it stood until 9:27 remained in the third, when Nikolay Kulemin — set up by Tavares — scored a goal like no other.

The play started in the neutral zone, along the wall in front of the benches, where a battle for the puck involving two players from each team escalated. First there was a brief wrestling match. Then Isles defenseman Johnny Boychuk dumped Capitals winger Joel Ward on his back and stood over him. But rather than blowing the whistle and calling coincidental roughing penalties — or holding, or interference — the officials allowed play to continue. And with the four combatants taking themselves out of the play, the opportunistic Tavares skated through the open ice into the Washington zone, where he was confronted by Ovechkin and defenseman Karl Alzner.

Boom!

Tavares was crushed along the boards to Holtby’s right (see photo above). For a split-second, I thought the Islanders’ captain, star and leading scorer had been knocked out cold. Amid the chaos, Ovechkin spun around in a circle looking for the puck as Tavares lay face-down on the ice.

But again, play was allowed to continue. And suddenly there was Nick Leddy, alertly retrieving the puck along the wall and centering it to a wide-open Kulemin, who made a move and slipped a forehand behind Holtby for the lead. Tavares returned to his feet slowly, but he stayed in the game (One of my worries heading into Game 7 is that he might have a concussion).

The Islanders have had so much working against them in this series. Three of their top six defensemen are out with injuries, so they chose to dress rarely used Matt Donovan and minor-league call-up Scott Mayfield for today’s elimination game. Washington has scored three times after an Islander had broken his stick; the first two goals helped the Caps win Game 2, and the third was an overtime winner in Game 4. And Game 4 might have been settled in regulation if Cal Clutterbuck’s shot had not clanged off the crossbar with the score tied in the third period, or the referees had decided to enforce the rules instead of making it easier for the Capitals to throw their weight around with impunity.

In this game, too, Mikhail Grabovski, whose return has injected some speed into the Islanders’ attack, fired a shot that Holtby bobbled and allowed to fall behind him. But instead of trickling into the net, the slow-moving puck went just wide of the post.

But with 5:33 remaining, the Isles clinging to a 2-1 lead and every minute off the clock feeling more like an hour — finally, some puck luck! As the Capitals were buzzing around the net, Jay Beagle lifted a shot that a prone Jaroslav Halak barely touched. The puck flew over him — but it hit the crossbar. The officials’ call stood after a replay review, and the Coliseum crowd erupted with glee as the final decision was announced.

That glee turned to relief and exultation when Clutterbuck scored into an empty net with 53 seconds remaining. The Islanders’ fourth line of Casey Cizikas between Clutterbuck and Matt Martin had set the tone all game long, hitting Capitals at every opportunity. It was fitting that one of them should score the clincher.

Now both teams are one loss away from elimination. Washington is 3-9 all-time in Game 7s, and has lost four of its last five. One of those defeats came in 2010 against the Canadiens, whose goalie stopped 41 shots as underdog Montreal upset the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Caps 2-1. The name of that goalie? Jaroslav Halak, who with today’s win is now 6-1 in elimination games in his career.

If those historical trends continue, this will not be the final game ever played at the Old Barn before the Islanders move to Brooklyn next season.

“It was great to win in this building,” Martin said. “We don’t want it to be the last one.

“It’s been home to me my whole NHL career. It’s the best atmosphere to play in. They don’t really make them like this anymore.”

Question for Game 7: Will the Islanders’ power play, now 0 for 13 in the series, finally solve the riddle of the Capitals’ penalty-killing unit?

Question for beyond Game 7: Perhaps the biggest beneficiaries of all this pounding will be the Rangers, who closed out their series Friday night and can now rest while the Isles and Caps knock the snot out of each other. Will the winner of this series have anything left for Game 1 at Madison Square Garden?

Filed April 25, 2015

Sources: NBC Sports, MSG Network, NHL.com

Game 5: Capitals 5, Islanders 1 Pushed to the brink

Like the Islanders’ season as a whole, tonight got off to a promising start. But just like the Islanders’ trends over the 82-game schedule, tonight grew worse and worse as it went along and, in the end, got downright ugly.

This was by far the Isles’ worst performance of the series. They were outshot 41-23. Their power play, given a chance to answer shortly after Washington had taken the lead, instead fizzled for the umpteenth time while I screamed at the TV set for them to shoot the puck. The Islanders trailed 2-1 after two, but the third period was a disaster. Twice they gave up goals immediately after killing off a Capitals power play, making the score 4-1. One of those resulted from a bad line change that allowed 22-year-old Evgeny Kuznetsov to skate in with ridiculous ease. Goalie Jaroslav Halak was mercifully replaced after giving up the fifth goal, an easy shot he should have stopped. Later, Calvin de Haan limped off to the dressing room, leaving the Islanders to finish with just five defensemen for a second consecutive game.

This was not the finish I envisioned during the early part of the game, when the Islanders looked as strong as they had when they were in first place in the Metropolitan Division in November and December.

After Tuesday night’s frustrating 2-1 overtime loss at Nassau Coliseum, coach Jack Capuano said he needed “a little bit more” from his top three lines. And with Mikhail Grabovski, out since February with a concussion, returning in the lineup, Capuano mixed up his combinations to reunite pairings that have worked well in the past.

Game 4 was a chippy, nasty game that left hard feelings on both sides, and Game 5 started off with similar snarl. At the very first whistle, the teams engaged in a brief scrum in front of the Islanders’ net. Anders Lee, who rarely fights, responded to the call for something extra by battling Tom Wilson, public enemy No. 1 in the Islanders’ eyes for his hit that knocked defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky out of Game 4. Just 26 seconds after that, John Tavares took his lumps along the boards to set up Josh Bailey for a goal. For the third time in three games in Washington, the Isles had taken the lead before the game was seven minutes old.

But Kuznetsov was left all alone to knock in a rebound at the post, tying the game at 1-1 after one period. And when Halak was unable to cover the puck at his left post in the second, Karl Alzner capital-ized to put the Caps in front with his second of the playoffs. Alzner is the only defenseman on either side to score a goal in the series.

Then again, the Islanders’ defensemen are having trouble just surviving the series. Travis Hamonic appears nowhere near returning after he was hit in Game 81 of the regular season. The undersized, 38-year-old Visnovsky has been hammered several times by the big, physical Caps, and the crushing blow by Wilson left him unable to continue. If de Haan cannot go in Game 6, the Islanders would have to stave off elimination with three of their top six defensemen unavailable.

I’m trying to keep the faith, but the Islanders tonight looked worn down and worn out. Washington has the advantage in size, and as Game 5 trudged on, the Islanders appeared unable to stand up to the pounding. They have been outscored 6-1 in the third period in this series, and the only goal they’ve managed to get was an empty-netter.

But the Capitals have failed to finish off playoff series before, and Game 6 is at Nassau Coliseum. The last thing the Islanders want to do is end their tenure at the Old Barn on the losing end of a handshake line. And these days, even some Ranger fans are rooting for the Islanders, looking ahead to a rivalry series that would send the metropolitan area into a hockey frenzy.

It takes four games to win a series. Right now, the big, bad Caps have just three.

Filed April 23, 2015

Sources: MSG Network, NHL.com

 

Game 4: Capitals 2, Islanders 1 Failed power plays haunt Isles

Nicklas Backstrom, who has been the Capitals’ playoff MVP to this point, won the game at 11:09 of overtime with his third clutch goal of the series. The Islanders lost the game by failing to score on three straight power plays in the second period. In a span of seven minutes, 12 seconds, the Islanders received six minutes of man-advantage. They wasted much of that time standing around, making far too many perimeter passes as the opportunities slipped through their fingers.

The Isles are the only team in the playoffs that hasn’t scored a power-play goal in the tournament yet. I’m sure Jack Capuano and his coaching staff will make adjustments to try to change that.  I wish Capuano would put the third or fourth line on the ice for the power play, just to guarantee that his guys don’t give up so many chances to shoot. When John Tavares’ unit is on the ice, it seems to be waiting for the perfect play that never comes.

What made it especially infuriating for me (and I’m sure for other Islander fans as well) is that the Capitals’ Tom Wilson deserved to see his team give up a goal while he was in the penalty box. Wilson took two of those three penalties in the second period, and both of them were dangerous plays. The first penalty was for a knee-to-knee hit; the second was for leaving his feet to flatten 38-year-old Lubomir Visnovsky behind the net, knocking him out of the game. The Visnovsky hit might have drawn a five-minute major on another night, but the officiating crew tonight allowed much bad behavior to go unpunished.

The Islanders’ indecisive, standstill power play also failed to punish Wilson. And now the Isles may be without two of their best defensemen — Visnovsky and Travis Hamonic — in a series that has whittled down to a best-of-three. To win the series, they’ll have to take another game in Washington.

Sources: MSG Network, NHL.com

Filed April 21, 2015

Game 3: Islanders 2, Capitals 1 Just like J.P. Parise did it

 

The Islanders won 22 of the first 27 overtime playoff games in their history. Clutch goals scored in sudden death enabled them to build a reputation as a formidable postseason opponent and ultimately formed the foundation of their dynasty.

The very first of those OT goals was scored by J.P. Parise in the deciding game of a best-of-three series against the Rangers in 1975. And it happened on the very first shift of overtime.

Today, John Tavares’ winning goal against Washington was eerily similar to Parise’s winner at Madison Square Garden 40 years ago. Now, as then, the Islanders won the OT face-off, dumped the puck into the opponent’s zone, and sneaked the winning goal inside the post to the goalie’s right before the opponent could even clear the puck to center ice. Now, as then, the victory made the score of the series 2-games-to-1 in favor of the Islanders. The losing goalie then was Ed Giacomin, wearing a white jersey with blue numerals and red hockey shorts. The losing goalie today was Braden Holtby, also wearing a white jersey with blue numerals and red hockey shorts. The Capitals added to the déjà vu by choosing to go with their throwback uniforms, the ones they wore in their debut season of 1974-75 — the season when Parise scored against Giacomin.

When the Celtics were playing their last season at Boston Garden and the Canadiens were bidding farewell to the Montreal Forum, much of the talk centered around the ghosts in those iconic buildings. Why was it that strange things seemed to happen when those dynastic teams were teetering on the brink of defeat, unforeseen strokes of good fortune that enabled the home team to emerge victorious?

This season, of course, is the Islanders’ last at Nassau Coliseum. And while the hockey greats who built the Islanders’ dynasty are still alive and kicking — including general manager Bill Torrey and coach Al Arbour — J.P. Parise (father of Minnesota Wild star and former New Jersey Devil Zach Parise) died of cancer in January at the age of 73.

Not to sound macabre, but shortly after Holtby’s attempt to clear the puck landed squarely on Tavares’ stick and Tavares sent the puck behind Holtby’s leg and into the net for the winning goal, I thought of J.P. Parise.

The most memorable games of the Isles’ 19 straight series wins from 1980-84 were the ones they won in OT: Bobby Nystrom in 1980, John Tonelli in ’82, Ken Morrow in ’84. But before today, it had been 22 years since the Islanders last won a playoff game in OT. Following David Volek’s Game 7 stunner that ended the Pittsburgh Penguins’ reign as champions in 1993, the Islanders lost six straight sudden-death games. Two of those came in their most recent playoff appearance, against Pittsburgh in 2013. In that series, each team beat the other in regulation twice, but the Penguins survived in six because they won both of the games that went to overtime. The series-ending goal was scored by defense-minded defenseman Brooks Orpik, who has scored just three goals since then (and none this season).

Today, Orpik plays for the Capitals, who like the Penguins in 2013 were unwelcome visitors to Nassau Coliseum for Game 3 of a first-round series. And again, puck drop was scheduled for early afternoon on a sunny Sunday with the game nationally televised on NBC.

Orpik was on the ice for the deciding goal again, but this time he could only stand and watch in front of his net as Tavares’ shot eluded Holtby. The Islanders had changed the ending for him by rediscovering what made them great — playoff heroics in OT.

Now the Islanders own a 30-13 all-time OT record, including two of the six fastest overtime goals in Stanley Cup playoff history. Parise’s goal at 11 seconds started a trend of postseason success. The Islanders hope Tavares’ goal at 15 seconds does the same.

Question for Game 4: Will the Islanders find a way to control the action in the third period, or will they once again spend the final 20 minutes struggling to get out of their own zone? Today marked the second straight game they allowed Nicklas Backstrom to score the tying goal for Washington in the third.

Filed April 19, 2015

Sources: NHL.com, hockey-reference.com, NBC, ESPN