Thursday, January 27, 2011

Moulson Commits Long Term

Some positive news emerged for the Islanders today, as they signed potential free agent winger Matt Moulson to a three year contract.

Moulson, one of the most prolific scorers among the current Islanders, led the team in goals (30) in 2009-2010 and is 47-30-77 during his career with the team.

While I didn't speak with Mouslon directly, shorty after the news broke Moulson used social media to tell his fans he was "extremely excited to have another 3 years with a great organization...I love LI and am honored to be a part of this team."

I know the fans are equally pleased to keep the 27-year old Ontario native in New York as well. He is a terrific presence for John Tavares in the locker room, extremely affable, and a fine interview on most nights. His hockey skills are an added bonus, in my view.

Kudos to Garth Snow and Islanders management for holding on to a vital asset.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Universal Language of Hockey

I'll admit one thing: I can be a bit of a curmudgeon. So when Charles Wang and the Islanders hosted their annual Lighthouse International Youth Hockey Tournament for the past three years, it didn't register on my radar.

I really didn't care too much about some wobbly 11 and 12-year-olds trudging up and down the ice, half of the team falling to their rears when they reached the opposing blue line. Especially when I could see the Islanders do that on any given night.

So it came as a real surprise to me when I showed up at Nassau Coliseum this past weekend and saw real skill on the ice. Whether it was little Kenshiro Sasaki from Japan cutting through defenders or Team Finland putting up 32 goals over two games on the same day, a lot of these kids could play. And even though the crowds weren't close to capacity, the energy from local parents in the seats cheering their sons (and a few daughters) on was easy to see.

Rather than relay the results from the games, or tell you that the Finns were the eventual champions, the tournament is about more than that. For most of the foreign players, this event allowed them to travel to the United States for the first time in their young lives. As if that wasn't significant enough.

"I think this [tournament] will provide the kids with memories, maybe not for right now, but some years into the future," Finnish coach Juha Peri opined. Playing in an NHL arena is special for the team as well, he said, though Finland does have an outstanding top professional league which has produced a crop of stars over the years. Peri explained that this was the largest venue any of the players had ever skated in.

One of the members from Team China also mentioned the Coliseum as something completely new and exciting for him. Wang Jinghao, who wears #22, said the arena was very colorful (though some Islanders fans might not feel the same way). He went on to say that he was used to a much harder ice surface back home, due to the frigid temperatures of northern China, which can typically dip down to around –13 degrees Farenheit (-25 Celcius).

Every child I spoke with was eager to see what New York City and Long Island offers its citizens. For that, tournament organizer Michelle Winter and her staff also scheduled trips for the youngsters to a local Dave and Buster's arcade, a banquet for all of the participants, autograph sessions with Islanders players, and even a national television appearance.

Though I believe any trip to the New York metro area is exciting and educational, this was more than just about scenery and making the tourist rounds. Charles Wang's tournament is about making friends and memories for life, uniting cultures, and sports acting as a universal language.

The head coach of Team Japan, Kenji Kousaka, said it best. "Children have the power to make a friend. Even though they do not speak [a common] language, they try to make a friend through hockey."

There were many examples of international friendship that I witnessed this weekend; too many to cite, in fact. But I promise you it went on in the post-game handshakes, in the hotel lobby, during shared meals, and who-knows-where else.

When the Islanders promoted the tournament via press release earlier this month, the heading on the mailing read "Hockey Unites Cultures on Long Island". If that was the goal here, I believe it has been reached. And there was some surprisingly skilled hockey played too, by the way.

For their help this weekend, I wish to extend many thanks to Taka Shirai, Chihiro Shinzaki, Coach Kenji Kousaka, Coach Juha Peri, Elias Viljanen, Wang Jinghao, Michelle Winter, Katrina Doell, Dyan LeBourdais, David Hochman, and of course, Charles Wang.

Please enjoy a selection of photos from the championship game played between Finland and Japan (click to enlarge):

Early action from ice level as Japan (red) and Finland (black/gold) battle for the title.

The contest was close throughout.

The players from Finland watching their mates from the bench.

Team Japan celebrates and changes lines following a goal.

Finland wins a game that was tight until the very end. Final score: Finland 6, Japan 4.

The two squads pose for a mixed picture immediately following the final horn.

New York Islanders General Manager presents medals to runner-up Japan.

The victors are presented with gold.

Charles Wang, owner of the Islanders, fields questions and praises the participants.

Representatives from all eight tournament teams are present at center ice before the NHL game begins.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Kyle Returns But Isles Falter

The much-anticipated return of Kyle Okposo took place on Thursday (1/20) night, and I can report that he looked good. It would have been a better night if the Islanders as a whole had looked good over sixty minutes. However, as they often do, they started slowly, fell behind early, and never recovered.

The Islanders dropped Kyle's season debut 2-1 to Washington. Although the Caps are a far more talented team, the Islanders had chances (including six unconverted power play chances) against neophyte goalie Braden Holtby. Instead they dug a two goal hole and played almost all but the first 3:41 from behind.

"I thought we played a pretty good game in spurts," Kyle explained after his debut. "I thought we dominated a lot of the play tonight." He lamented that defensive breakdowns led to goals by Jason Chimera and Nicklas Backstrom, which in turn led to the loss.

As for his own health, Kyle reported no difficulties. "After I got that first [contact] out of the way I knew my shoulder was strong," referring to his surgically repaired right rotator cuff.

He admitted his timing was slightly off, but that can be expected after a 44 game layoff. "Other than that my legs felt good."

The numbers testify to Kyle's statement, as the box score shows he logged 18:05 of ice time, took 8 shots (including a few missed ones that resonated loudly off the boards), dished out a hit, and earned 6:26 on the power play.

Everyone who watched from the press box noticed that Kyle was willing to get into the slot to fire off his shots, a few times going hard to the net too. His game as a power forward doesn't seem to have suffered during the hiatus.

He did admit to a mistake in the defensive zone which directly led to the game's first goal. "I was backchecking on [Backstrom] and I knew he was looking for Ovechkin and I just pulled back at the last second. He kind of slipped through my legs and got by me and that was all the time that he needed to pass it in front."

Coach Jack Capuano, who last coached Kyle in Bridgeport in March of 2008, seemed happy with the way KO's comeback turned out.

"I was pleased. The one thing I was a little concerned about was the physicality of the game and the wall play, the play down low and the 1-on-1 and 2-on-2 battles." The coach summed it up by declaring, "I thought he handled it pretty well."

With that said, the coach felt that Kyle would be ready and able to face Buffalo on Friday (1/21) night.

News and Notes:

- Also making his return from an injury (groin) was center Frans Nielsen. Nielsen earned 16:27 of ice time, 4:46 of it on the power play. He did not record a point.

- Michael Grabner scored the lone Islanders goal. Rick DiPietro started in net and saved 22 of 24 shots on goal.

- After the game, Rick DiPietro felt the lingering effects of flu-like symptoms he experienced earlier in the week. He took IV fluids but did not travel on the team plane to Buffalo.

- Attendance was 9,119.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

He's Back!

The Islanders announced today (1/19) that Kyle Okposo has completed the rehabilitation of his shoulder injury and will play tomorrow. The Islanders will host the Washington Capitals at Nassau Coliseum.

Okposo missed the first 44 games of the season when he injured his rotator cuff in a pre-season incident. Surgery was performed by doctors at the Cleveland Clinic.

I know that Islanders fans everywhere are elated at this development. The team finally welcomes back the man who contributed 52 points (19 goals, 33 assists) last season.

Here's a happy Kyle today letting a few media members know that he's ready to go. Let's hope his injury woes are over for good.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Tavares Hits His Stride

Rarely do I single out one player as a game-changer in most Islanders wins. Saturday's (1/15) 5-3 win over Buffalo was a team effort, but the 'man of the match' (to borrow a phrase from English football) was clearly John Tavares.

It is rewarding to watch a metamorphosis take place. Though I have never witnessed it firsthand in nature, I feel that I am seeing something akin to the process whenever I watch John Tavares on the ice of late.

Since draft day, we fans have always sensed that J.T. had an innate talent for scoring. His Ontario Hockey League stats told us as much. Now, midway through his second season with the Islanders, he is transforming 'potential' into ability, and it is a treat to watch. As it must similarly be for the scientist in the field to observe a larva mature into an adult.

The suddenly accelerated development of Tavares was on display again against the Sabres. Tavares, who had already recorded 16 points over his previous 14 games (including 7 goals), netted a natural hat trick. While the feat is hard to perform on any night, Tavares bested one of the league's finest and highly honored goalies, Ryan Miller. In a span of 5 minutes and 46 seconds.

"He's one of the best in the league -- one of the best in the world," said the young forward of Miller following the game.

Tavares, who failed in a chance to bank at least one more goal against Miller, had no complaints with accepting the three goals and the win. "I've worked on a lot of things, [gotten] better in a lot of areas, and it's nice to get rewarded and have the team get rewarded."

The last part of that statement is telling, because though the results may not have shown up from the outset, this team has been just that, a team, since Opening Night. Tavares, while accepting the personal recognition that comes with a hat trick, mentioned his linemates first when discussing the game's events.

Linemate Matt Moulson earned the game's second star with three assists, while P.A. Parenteau had two and nearly set up Tavares early on with a 2-on-0 breakaway.

Blake Comeau scored his 13th goal of the year following Tavares' trick, while goaltender Rick DiPietro stopped 40 of Buffalo's 43 shots on goal.

Thomas Vanek, Tyler Ennis, and Jochen Hecht had the goals for Buffalo, the first two men scoring on power plays.

News and Notes:

- J.T.'s hat trick was his second of the year (and career), the first coming on 10/23 against Florida. He now has 18 points and 15 assists in 2010-2011.

- With the win, the Isles improved to 14-22-7, the identical record that Edmonton holds. The two clubs are tied for 28th in the league, with only New Jersey situated below them in the league standings.

- The Islanders take on the aforementioned Devils at home on Monday (1/17). The game will begin at 1 PM due to holiday scheduling.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Still A Slow Go For Okposo

News from the team came out today, and it was a mixed bag. While Kyle Okposo skated in his first full-team practice on Wednesday (1/12), there is still no timetable for his return.

While I'm glad he is getting closer to game action, I honestly thought that he was farther along in the recuperative process. I was hoping that #21 would be back playing games by now, but of course his doctors' cautious pace outweigh my selfish desires. Hopefully he'll get the "all clear" soon enough.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Isles Can't Maintain Holiday Heat

Since I last checked in here, a flurry of activity has taken place. By now everyone knows from a myriad of sources that Dwayne Roloson was traded shortly after Wisniewski departed. We then saw Rick DiPietro and Mark Eaton hurt themselves, while the goal crease welcomed some new faces.

Tonight (1/6) the newest Islander to join the brotherhood (and the media guide) was Kevin Poulin. It wasn't intended to be his debut, but after fellow rookie Nathan Lawson started and allowed two quick goals to Edmonton, Poulin was thrown into the fire, so to speak.

Poulin, whose debut was highly anticipated by those following his minor league travails, performed admirably under the sudden pressure but failed to bring the streaking Isles a win. Edmonton won a 2-1 battle, cooling off a New York team that had won six of their previous seven games. Nevertheless, he should be applauded for stopping all 19 shots he faced in his National Hockey League debut.

Someone else worthy of applause of late has been John Tavares. He doesn't get a lot of press on this site but he and his linemates have had a big hand in getting the Islanders on a winning roll. After some worry that he hadn't performed up to expectations of a #1 overall pick, some even suggesting that he had regressed from last season, J.T. quieted his critics with 14 points over his previous nine games. Five of those points came as goals. Even my untrained eyes can see that he has found a comfort level playing alongside Matt Moulson and P.A. Parenteau.

While I have the opportunity, let me just say that Islanders management should take this opportunity to sign Matt Moulson past this season, as they risk losing him to free agency on July 1. Just as Garth Snow took care of defenseman Milan Jurcina this week by signing him to a one year, $1.6 million extension, he too should treat last year's top goalscorer in a similar fashion. The only difference is that Moulson has proven himself worthy of a multi-year deal.

Finally, as we're now into January, we await word on a set date for Kyle Okposo's return. He has been seen skating at Iceworks and must be getting close. With 96 career points to his name, it will be my pleasure to see him bank his 100th later this season. Plus, I'm sure he doesn't want to let a suddenly charging Tavares (currently at 81 career points) draw much closer to him.

I'll be back with any news regarding this blog's namesake as we hear it. I hope you all had a wonderful holiday season and new year, and thank you for your readership.

News and notes:

- The Islanders will play the 3,000 career game in franchise history on Sunday, 1/9. After getting within one loss of being a .500 franchise, the Islanders have recovered of late and currently sit at 3,004 points (1295-1289-347-67) all-time.

- Blake Comeau scored the lone goal in the Islanders loss Thursday night.