Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Team of the Decade

While the 2000s weren't a particularly fruitful decade for the New York Islanders franchise, we always try to stay positive in this space. Believe us, at times it has been a challenge over the last ten years. But looking back, there was one Islander team of the last 10 that clearly stood above the rest for us: the 2001-2002 squad.

After enduring seven years of playoff absence and an absurd coaching carousel, in '01-'02 the Isles finally started to get things right. Under the leadership of youthful, new coach Peter Laviolette, fans finally had a reason to believe in the Orange and Blue again.

While it may not have finished the way the fans wanted, the season was a marvelous ride that left people hungering and expecting more from the franchise. Positivity, which had been seemingly on permanent hiatus (an oxymoron that most clearly describes the state of the team at the time), was back on Long Island.

The 2001-2002 version of the Isles started off in fine fashion. Led by scorers Alexei Yashin (32 G, 43 A, 75 P), Mark Parrish (30 G, 30 A, 60 P), and Mike Peca (25 G, 35 A, 60 P), the Isles came out of the gate flying. Winners of their first 4 games and 11 of their first 14 overall, the team vaulted right to the top of the Atlantic Division standings. They battled with the Philadelphia Flyers and New Jersey Devils for supremacy right until the final games of the regular season.

Solid play was found not only in the offensive zone, but on the blue line as well by our personal favorite defensive corps of the decade. Adrian Aucoin contributed 34 points and a delightful +23 to a group that included stalwarts Kenny Jonsson and Roman Hamrlik. Eric Cairns kept other teams in line with his 176 penalty minutes that season, the statistical leader in the category.

Speaking of favorites, that year the Isles also sported two pretty good netminders in Chris Osgood (32 W, 2.50 GAA) and current general manager Garth Snow (2.71 GAA). Unfortunately, Osgood only stayed with the franchise for one more season, as at the time the Isles were grooming a confident, young Rick DiPietro at the minor league level in Bridgeport.

2001-2002 was also the first season that Isles fans got to see Jason Blake, who would eventually have several productive seasons of his own (40 goals in 2006-2007, as an example). While we initially derided his trade from the Los Angeles Kings as one that had obtained "the wrong Blake" (the Kings moved defenseman Rob Blake in a separate deal to Colorado that season), it was we who were in the wrong. While Jason netted only 8 goals in '01-'02, we saw the talent that the undersized center possessed.

Although the Isles couldn't and didn't sustain their torrid pace, they did end the season with 96 points, good for second place in the division and a #5 seed in the playoffs. It was their highest point total in 18 seasons, and an outstanding 44 point improvement over the previous campaign. The Islanders missed winning their first division title since 1987-1988 by a single point, though, and earned a date with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round of the postseason.

The playoffs were memorable, but in the end, disappointing. The home team won every game, and unfortunately the decisive seventh game was played in Toronto. It was an extremely physical matchup, and people most vividly remember the injuries to Peca and Jonsson. And a penalty shot from this guy. That roar had been missing from the Coliseum for far too long in our opinion. But it showed how passionate, even rabid, the Islander fanbase can be when they have a team to get behind.

Sadly, the Islanders tried three more times over the next four seasons to get past the first round of the playoffs and could not. Laviolette eventually departed for Carolina and won a Stanley Cup. Alexei Yashin's name became a dirty word on Long Island. Players like Parrish, Peca, Jonsson, and Brad Isbister never matched their point totals again after that season. The NHL work stoppage came and the Islanders were forced to build it all again. And that's about where we are today.

But for one terrific season the Isles captured the spirit of the dynasty years. And so we nominate the 2001-2002 New York Islanders as our team of the decade.

Saturday, December 26, 2009


Kyle Okposo put an end to his 18 game goalless drought in spectacular fashion on Saturday (12/26) night. Having already assisted on two earlier Islanders goals (by Frans Nielsen and Blake Comeau, respectively), Kyle added the game winner with 47 seconds left in overtime. After letting a 2-0 lead slip away late, the Islanders rebounded to beat the New York Rangers by a 3-2 final.

For Okposo, not only did he break his drought, which must come as a huge relief to him, but he recorded the first three point game of his career and earned the first star of the game. The winner was a long wrist shot that appeared to hit Ranger defenseman Marc Staal and a post before it found the back of the net. It was a just reward for another terrific game effort from the 21 year old budding star.

Even the opposing announcers praised Kyle's effort, calling him the "best Islander on the ice all night."

With the win, the Islanders move to 3-1 versus the Rangers this season, with two of the wins coming in Madison Square Garden. Dwayne Roloson made 36 saves to help earn the win.

Islanders prospect Travis Hamonic (2008, Round 2) had a goal and an assist in Canada's 16-0 rout of Latvia as the 2010 IIHF World U20 Championship got underway.

American Matt Donovan (2008, Round 4) had a goal of his own against Slovakia.

Lastly, Russian winger Kirill Petrov (2008, Round 3) had a goal and two assists to help his country to an opening 6-2 win over Austria.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Islanders 3, Toronto Maple Leafs 1

The title of this post may be bland, but sometimes you're happy to come away with a win, even if it wasn't the most crackling contest. The Islanders did just that on Wednesday (12/23) evening, in a game that was just slightly more exciting than the heading indicates.

The Isles won on home ice for the first time in five tries. It was a grind-out win that featured good defensive work and good play from goaltender Dwayne Roloson. The 40 year old netminder won his 12th game of the season, and a 19 year old rookie (John Tavares) scored a pivotal goal to send the Islanders into the Christmas break on a positive note.

The Isles looked as if they were going to get on the board early in the first period, when Kyle Okposo (now goalless in a whopping 18 games) backhanded a puck on net with his side on a man advantage. It didn't go in, of course, and the Isles only mustered another 6 shots the entire period. Jon Sim made his presence felt, though, as he later took a penalty that might have saved a goal, then missed on a breakaway chance near the end of the frame.

Trent Hunter, who scored the opening goal of the previous game, did so again at 10:47 of the second period. As a New York power play expired, Hunter squeezed off a wrist shot that beat Toronto goalie Jonas Gustavsson high and close. Hunter's ledger now shows 7 goals on the season. The goal was unassisted.

Just 90 seconds later, John Tavares broke his mini-drought of five games without a point as he added a second score. Blake Comeau helped Tavares light the lamp this time, and defenseman Andy Sutton picked up a helper after some video review of the play.

Despite holding a 2-0 lead with 40 minutes in the books, doubt must have crept in to some fans' minds when Niklas Hagman scored just less than two minutes into the final period. Given their penchant for blowing 3rd period leads and lackadaisical efforts late in games, the concern was valid. But it proved to be unnecessary worry this time around.

Despite a spirited try (14 shots), the Leafs got nothing else past Roloson. Blake Comeau added a goal to his earlier assist when he was taken down on an empty net breakaway with 35 seconds left to play. For Comeau, it was his third goal of the season, but earned him the honorary hardhat for effort in a jubilant locker room afterward.

The Islanders will have two days off to spend with friends and family before they head back into action on Saturday (12/26) night. They will head to Madison Square Garden looking for their third win in four tries this season against the hated New York Rangers.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Frustration Setting In

Last month many people looked at the current stretch of home games on the Islanders' schedule and saw a chance for the team to put up some wins. It hasn't worked out that way so far. The Islanders dropped their third in a row on home ice, this time to the underperforming Tampa Bay Lightning.

On a night (12/21) when the New York Dragons banners were finally (and hopefully permanently) removed from the Nassau Coliseum, missing too was the Islanders' killer instinct. In a game they led 1-0 and 2-1, the Islanders lost by a 4-2 score.

Trent Hunter opened the scoring and Dwayne Roloson made two spectacular saves in succession as luck seemed to be on the Islanders' side this game. The feeling was short lived though as young Steven Stamkos netted his 21st goal of the year at 6:20 into the second period.

Kyle Okposo, now in a 16 game goal scoring drought, at least helped Nate Thompson gain a measure of satisfaction when he assisted on a pretty goal. It was Thompson's first tally of the season, though you'll certainly remember that it was Thompson who missed on the easiest of chances against the Rangers 9 nights ago. There was no miss this time, as #11 put the puck past goalie Mike Smith for another lead before things went haywire for the Isles.

Perennial thorn in the side Ryan Malone scored twice in the third period after Vincent Lecavalier equalized for Tampa with time winding down in the second. Both of Malone's goals came on power plays, an area in which the Islanders have struggled of late. Coach Scott Gordon conceded this point after the game, saying "we're getting outplayed on special teams, we're not getting outplayed 5-on-5."

In the end, it only meant another missed opportunity in a season filled with them and more frustration for players and fans alike.

The Islanders will have a chance to turn things around on Wednesday (12/23) when they welcome in Toronto, a team who has righted their ship after a 3-11-6 start. The Islanders need to do the same, and quickly, before thoughts begin to turn to planning for next season.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Effort Is There Every Night

"You will never hear me question Kyle's effort."

Strong and encouraging words from Islanders head coach Scott Gordon. "He's always going to give it his best," Gordon added.

The coach is, of course, right. But one can look at Okposo's season so far and call it a microcosm of the entire Islanders season. Hard work, but less reward than one might expect.

Lest you think we're picking on this blog's namesake, we'll be the first to point out that Kyle leads the team in assists (17) and has the third highest point total, at 22. But just by casually observing the way he has played this year, you'd imagine he would have netted 15 or 20 goals by now. Unfortunately, he's been stuck on 5 for the last 15 games.

Asked if he was frustrated by his low goal output, Kyle offered that he "feels like [he's] playing well," but is not getting the breaks that lead to goals. "Everybody goes through it," he continued, "and you've just got to wait it out."

Which brings us back to that microcosm part. The same could be said of the Islanders. Many parts of the team are functioning properly, but the results are uneven. This was on display again on Thursday (12/17) night at home against the hated New York Rangers.

On a night in which Kyle insisted that the Isles clearly outplayed the Rangers, they dropped the game by a 5-2 score. Chances were missed, most memorably a Nate Thompson scoring attempt on an empty net, and the Rangers rode a hot goalie to a win. Okposo himself had 6 tries against Henrik Lundqvist, but could get nothing past the Swede.

Despite the result, there seemed to be an encouraging confidence going around the locker room. Kyle made it clear that the team is a cohesive unit despite their 13-15-7 record. They will continue to play an aggressive, physical brand of hockey, too. "When they mess with one guy they mess with five, that's our mentality right now."

Hopefully the bounces will come soon, better luck will be had, and some more wins will be tallied. But as the coach said, you can't question the effort.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Bad All Around

Monday (12/14) night at Nassau Coliseum featured one of those games that, as a fan, you just want to bury and forget. Seemingly in the game against Florida until the start of the third period, the Islanders had their doors blown off by a 7-1 final. Mark Streit made miscues that led to Panthers goals, Dwayne Roloson was porous in net, and there wasn't much offense to speak of.

While young Islander Jesse Joensuu scored his first goal of the season, it was about the only positive that could be taken away from a disastrous night. Trying to explain his team's effort, or lack thereof, Roloson believed that the Isles were looking ahead to this week's games against the New York Rangers. While coach Scott Gordon didn't see it that way, he expressed his hope for this to be the low point of the season, and that the team would collectively regroup.

Capping the evening's misery was a post-game statement from team general manager Garth Snow stating "Ricky [DiPietro] has been seen by the team doctors and most recently a specialist. To make sure we are taking the proper steps in his rehabilitation we will seek an additional opinion and should have a timeline by the end of the week."

Wow, hopefully another injury setback is not in the offing for the franchise goaltender.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Messing With Magic

This will be the shortest post you will ever read:

Dear Scott Gordon,

We understand your need to try to find secondary scoring, but when you break up the line of Matt Moulson, John Tavares, and Kyle Okposo, you are messing with magic.

Yours truly,
Okposo Net

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Okposo to Tavares Again and Again

After Wednesday (12/9) night's unfortunate loss in Toronto, a game in which the Islanders rallied to tie -- only to lose, a sad fact is emerging. The only thing working really well for the team is the top line (Moulson, Tavares, Okposo).

With the loss the Islanders fell back into a 'bottom 5' position in the league, which bodes well for a future draft, but not so well for the current campaign.

Are the Islanders improved from last year's product? No doubt. Are they a playoff team this season? Likely not.

Examining the recent woes a little further, we see that #1 pick John Tavares is working out just fine (15 goals in 31 games). It's early to call him the Calder trophy favorite, but if his pace continues, he'll win it easily. And while the Isles have hit another one of their infamous team scoring droughts, JT has not, netting each of the last five goals the team has scored.

Not by coincidence, Kyle Okposo has assisted Tavares on the most recent four of those goals, and has helped on 6 of the team's last 7. The line is working as designed; Okposo feeding passes to the team's young sniper. And on the left side, the emergence of Matt Moulson (14 goals) has been written about to death. There's no need to rehash that.

But what of the other lines? The Islanders are not ready to give up on players like Sean Bergenheim, Frans Nielsen, and Josh Bailey. As it stands right now, they appear to be important parts of the rebuilding process. But there has been spotty production from not only those three, but the rest of the regular forwards (Sim, Tambellini, Park, etc.). And that is the real problem. Inconsistency. Each of the aforementioned players might have a great game, but then they go M.I.A. for the next three. Not a winning formula, if you ask us.

So what is Garth Snow to do? With about $17 million in cap space and some big name free agents possibly becoming available at the trading deadline, will he make a move? Is he authorized to make one? We shall see. But the status quo is aggravating to a fan base that has been through almost everything, but more importantly, can see good days on the horizon.

As for now, we're left with a one line team and a taste of what can be.