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.

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

 

Game 2: Capitals 4, Islanders 3 Opportunity slips away

This loss was a missed opportunity for the Islanders. They led by two goals in the second period despite the fact they were being badly outplayed. The Capitals had Philipp Grubauer in goal because starter Braden Holtby was out with an illness. Holtby had played 73 games in the regular season, more than any other goalie in the NHL. Washington, a team that rarely plays its No. 2 goaltender, was starting a goalie who had been recalled from the minor leagues earlier in the day.

It was all set up for the Islanders to do something they haven’t done since the 1983 Stanley Cup Final: take a 2-0 lead in a playoff series. A win tonight, with the series moving to Nassau Coliseum for the next two games, would have made a sweep a realistic possibility.

But these are not the 1980s anymore. The NHL today is marked by parity, with no dominant team in the tournament. And the Capitals tied the series with a home-ice victory they richly deserved.

The Islanders led 1-0 early in the first when Cal Clutterbuck scored on a 2-on-1 break, one of the few real scoring chances they had in the period. The Caps spent most of the first 20 minutes in the Isles’ zone, a puck-possession domination illustrated by this stat: Washington did not block a single shot in the first period, while the Islanders blocked 15.

The trend continued in the second period. Washington seemed to be playing keep-away with the puck, but now their shots were starting to reach goalie Jaroslav Halak. The Islanders, who led the league in shots on goal during the season, were outshot 18-7 in the period. Ryan Strome and Kyle Okposo, beating Grubauer high as Clutterbuck did, sandwiched goals around Karl Alzner’s score to make it a 3-1 lead. But the Islanders’ attack was feeble the rest of the game. Alex Ovechkin, ending a string of seven straight playoff games without a goal, scored on a rebound to start a run of three unanswered Washington goals.

The Islanders were in a constant state of retreat. Alzner and Ovechkin both scored 5-on-5, but their goals had the appearance of power-play goals, each one resulting from sustained pressure that kept the Islanders pinned in their defensive zone. The tiring, scrambling Islanders even formed a box in front of their net as if killing a penalty. Coach Jack Capuano called his timeout, then chewed his players out at the bench. Apparently, they needed to be reminded that they weren’t short-handed.

Then in the third period, they really were short-handed. Strome took a dumb penalty, slashing in retaliation. Soon Nicklas Backstrom was skating through center ice 1-on-4, with all four Islanders penalty killers backing off as if they were afraid of him. Backstrom then gave the Islanders reason to be afraid, gunning a shot past Halak to tie the game.

The Caps’ comeback was capped moments after Nick Leddy failed to connect on a breakout pass to Frans Nielsen. The giveaway led to another Capitals flurry, and Jason Chimera knocked in a rebound to give Washington the lead. Turnovers in their own end in the third period have been a problem for the Islanders all season. This time, the error ensured that the better team would be the winner. Washington was clearly better, rallying around their inexperienced goalie, who needed to make just 18 saves to win his NHL playoff debut. The much busier Halak, meanwhile, finished with 31 saves.

I was disappointed, but not dismayed. Even championship teams go through highs and lows during the two-month marathon that is the road to the Stanley Cup. Last season, the Kings lost the first three games vs. San Jose, then won the next four — the 1975 Islanders are one of only three other NHL teams to come back from an 0-3 hole.  The Kings went on to win the Stanley Cup Final against the Rangers, who had pulled off a comeback from a 1-3 deficit in the second round.

Now the Islanders are just getting started. The Old Barn will be rocking Sunday afternoon for Game 3. If the Isles are as listless then as they were tonight, then my disappointment — and worry — will become much greater.

Question for Game 3: Will Travis Hamonic return from his injury to bolster the Islanders’ defense?

Filed April 17, 2015

Sources: NHL.com, hockey-reference.com, MSG Network

Game 1: Islanders 4, Capitals 1 Best start Isles could imagine

This was about as encouraging a start to the playoffs as the Islanders could have hoped for. After six weeks of sub-par performances to end the regular season, they played a practically perfect road game. And Jaroslav Halak, despite giving up a goal in the final minute of a period for a fourth straight game, showed that he could shrug off a big mistake and not lose his composure.

But I don’t think Washington gave the Islanders its best game tonight. When Alex Ovechkin seemed most dangerous, he blew the scoring chance by shooting wide. One of those missed opportunities came on a power play in the third period with the Islanders protecting a 3-1 lead. If Ovechkin had been on target with that shot, who knows? Maybe the Islanders’ season-long tendency to lose their defensive structure and blow leads in the third period would have reared its ugly head again.

As it was, Halak finished with 24 saves, a manageable workload for a goaltender whose shaky performances in the final week of the regular season made him a huge question mark coming into the series. And the Isles killed off both of the Caps’ power plays, despite the fact that the players who took those penalties, Michael Grabner and Cal Clutterbuck, both see regular time on the penalty kill. The Islanders did all this despite the absence of the rock of their defense — Travis Hamonic, out with an injury.

What do I know about penalty-killing tactics? Not much, apparently. The Isles did not shadow Ovechkin when they were a man down like I thought they might, but their relentless pursuit of loose pucks when short-handed helped keep “the Great 8” pointless. The Isles played with urgency and made smart decisions with the puck — especially in the third period. This team that had given up 87 third-period goals during the regular season (compared to 58 in the first period) held the Caps to eight third-period shots and no goals.

As for offense, the Isles got goals from each of their top three forward lines. Brock Nelson was the main man, scoring the first goal of the night, then clinching the win with an empty-netter on which he outraced the Caps’ Matt Niskanen for an easy tap-in. It was a fitting ending, considering the Islanders outskated the Capitals all night. The one area where the Isles did not play well was in the face-off circle (39-23, Caps). But one of the Islanders’ infrequent face-off wins, by John Tavares, led directly to the eventual winning goal, by Ryan Strome in the second period. Josh Bailey, left alone in front of the net to whack at two rapid-fire rebounds, had the goal that made it 3-1 entering the third.

Now, I know that one win does not a series make. In 2003, the Islanders won Game 1 at Ottawa 3-0, only to lose the next four games for a quick exit (That was also the last time the Islanders held the lead in a playoff series). I have seen many Stanley Cup playoffs in which the momentum shifts from one team to the other and neither side really has control.

But the Islanders played tonight like a confident team that believes it can go far. And if the Capitals are unable to regain their finishing touch around the net, Nassau Coliseum might be in for a send-off to remember.

Question before Game 2: Am I related to Rob Scuderi? As far as I know, I am not, although we are both New Yorkers (I’m from Westchester, he’s from Long Island). But I’m not too happy with my namesake right now, because it was his hard but clean check into the boards that resulted in Hamonic’s injury last Friday night in Pittsburgh. Scuderi even scored his only goal of the season in that 3-1 Islanders win, part of that four-game streak against Halak in the final minute of a period. I suppose I do owe the veteran defenseman a debt of gratitude for getting my last name engraved on the Stanley Cup twice. However, I’ll be rooting for the Rangers in their series with the Penguins. An Islanders-Rangers series in the Eastern Conference semifinals would show those folks in the Geico commercials just how tough hockey rivalries really are.

Filed April 15, 2015

Sources: NHL.com, hockey-reference.com, Islanders Insight blog, MSG Network

 

Islanders-Capitals playoff series: Game 1 preview

The Islanders’ chances of winning a playoff series for the first time since 1993 rest on the shoulders of Jaroslav Halak.

Defenseman Johnny Boychuk, in a WFAN radio interview with Evan Roberts, said earlier today that the Islanders’ struggles down the stretch mean nothing now because the playoffs are a whole new season. Well, no one in Islanders blue and orange needs to take that message to heart more than the starting goaltender.

When last we saw Halak, he was lying face-down in his crease, deeply disappointed with himself for blowing a chance to defeat the Columbus Blue Jackets in a shootout in the Islanders’ final regular-season game at Nassau Coliseum, where a win would have secured home-ice advantage against Washington. Halak actually had four chances in the final week to give the Isles the one point they needed to leapfrog the Capitals in the standings. He blew them all, beginning Tuesday with an inexplicable long-range shot he failed to stop with 2.1 seconds left in Philadelphia, after the Islanders had scored two empty-net goals to tie the Flyers. Against Columbus on Saturday night, knowing the Caps had lost to the Rangers earlier in the day, Halak blew 3-1 and 4-3 leads in the third period, then failed to stop the Blue Jackets’ third attempt in the shootout — a save that would have clinched the victory. And so it was that the Coliseum’s chants of “We want home ice!” were not fulfilled.

All would be forgiven, however, if Halak shows the Capitals the same form he showed them in 2010, when he led the Canadiens to a seven-game series upset of top-seeded and Presidents’ Trophy-winning Washington. The ultimate redemption for Halak would be to steal Game 7 for the Islanders and turn home ice into a non-issue. That’s what he did for Montreal five years ago, stopping 41 of 42 shots to beat the Capitals 2-1 in the series clincher.

The Habs rallied from a 3-1 series deficit in that Eastern Conference quarterfinal — just as the Islanders did against Washington to win the 1987 Patrick Division series capped by the four-overtime “Easter Epic” in Game 7. Those are but two of many playoff disappointments endured over the years by the Caps. It’s a trend that has continued into the Alex Ovechkin era. Remember, Washington also lost a Game 7 on home ice to the Rangers in 2013, their last postseason appearance.

Washington entered the NHL for the 1974-75 season but has never won the Stanley Cup.

Question for Game 1: Will the Islanders’ penalty killers go with a triangle-and-one of sorts? Alex Ovechkin led the league in goals scored and is lethal on the power play, where he usually sets up in the face-off circle to the goalie’s right. From there, he frequently can one-time a rocket, and his right-handed shot from the off-wing gives him more net to shoot at. One ploy I’ll be looking for will be whether the Islanders shadow Ovechkin everywhere he goes during a power play and challenge the Caps’ other four skaters to beat them. Shadowing Ovechkin might also position the Isles to intercept a pass intended for him and launch a short-handed counterattack.

Filed April 14, 2015

Sources: MSG Network, NHL.com, hockey-reference.com and Total Stanley Cup: The Official Encyclopedia of the Stanley Cup.