Thursday, March 31, 2011

I'll Bet This Pair of Jacks

Yes folks, it was a good night in Islanderland.

With the rival New York Rangers fighting for their playoff lives fresh off a 1-0 loss at the hands of Buffalo, you would think the Islanders would have faced a desperate team flying out of the gate. Instead, the visiting Rangers received a thorough dismantling by the hometown Islanders on Thursday (3/31) night, who sent them back to Manhattan with their tails between their legs.

6-2 was the final score in a fight and penalty filled affair. Of note, Michael Grabner was out of the lineup awaiting the birth of his son. Frans Neilsen was injured by Marian Gaborik toward the end of the first period. League pest Sean Avery had his eye bloodied by Islander Michael Haley. Most importantly, the Rangers' most vital player, Henrik Lundqvist, was beaten for four second period goals and pulled to start the third. The visiting Rangers fans sat quietly on their hands as the Islanders racked up goals and most were on the highway with ten minutes remaining in the game.

Was it any wonder why Rangers coach John Tortorella wasn't in a chatty mood after the game?

But, let's remember, this was just one game. The Islanders aren't a playoff team in 2010-2011. But there are two men who might ensure they are in 2011-2012: Jack Capuano and Jack Hillen.

Much has already been said about Capuano elsewhere. The players have responded to his coaching style and subtle changes in system and attitude after the dismissal of Scott Gordon. And this is not a knock against Gordon. But the proof lies in Capuano's 26-26-9 record since he assumed the top role. Keep in mind many of those games have been played with a depleted lineup, much like this latest one.

However, Jack brings a laissez-faire approach to his coaching; it's apparent in his postgame debriefs, win or lose. He usually has a smile on his face and doesn't get overly technical in his explanations, unlike his predecessor. The players seem looser when I interact with them. Some of that is natural growth as players and as a team.

But others have said it and I'll go ahead and write it: the Islanders would be crazy to move forward with anyone other than Capuano next season.

He might fail, but he has earned a fair chance to guide this team under a new contract.

One other person I briefly want to mention worthy of a shot is Jack Hillen. I know he's not considered a top candidate for what should be an improved defense next year, but I think if the team is in need of a final defenseman on the roster it should be Jack. I'd certainly prefer him to Bruno Gervais if it comes down to a numbers game. To be clear, I have nothing against Bruno; he is a funny and polite young guy. In fact, he was one of my first interviews four seasons ago. I like Bruno very much.

I'm not sure there will be roster room for both men next year. I just happen to think Hillen is more capable in the defensive end.

Getting back to the here and now, Capuano praised Hillen's work after the 6-2 victory.

The coach simply stated, "He's skating." He continued, "We wanted our net front [defense] to activate. He was a big part of our breakout tonight and I can't say enough about the way Jack is playing right now."

I think going into next year, if I'm really seeing what I think I'm seeing as this season winds down, I'll be happy to bet on both Jacks.

News and notes:

- The aforementioned Hillen played 22:13, made four hits, and was a +2.

- Kyle Okposo had several good chances and went hard to the net more than once, but was again blanked on the scoring sheet. He's stuck at 5 goals and 13 assists.

- Six different Islanders scored and Isles goalie Al Montoya made 25 saves for the win.

- Statistical wizard Eric Hornick reports that this was the Islanders' largest margin of victory over the Rangers since February 20th, 1992.

- The Rangers were 0-for-8 on power play chances.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Montoya Signs an Extension

Next season's goaltending situation cleared a bit today when it was announced that goalie Al Montoya signed a one-year contract extension with the New York Islanders. Montoya, brought over in mid-season from Phoenix in exchange for a 6th round draft pick in the upcoming draft, has performed yeoman's work on Long Island. His play in the midst of an injury filled season earned him the security for next year.

His record currently stands at 8-4-4 with a 2.35 Goals Against Average. He'll certainly have a few more starts before the books close on the 2010-2011 season.

The financial terms of the deal were not disclosed by the Islanders.

Monday, March 28, 2011

El Niño Update

As you may have read, I'm excited about next year's team. You may also know that I take a special interest in Islanders prospects. In my mind, Nino Niederreiter is the number one guy to watch right now. I have no doubt that he'll be a member of the New York Islanders next season.

That said, "El Niño" (who gave him that nickname anyway?) is tearing through the minor league playoffs again. Fresh off a 41-29-70 regular season (in 55 games), Niederreiter has stayed hot with two goals and three assists in his first two postseason games. In Game 2 of the series, his three point night (2G, 1A) earned him the honor of being named the 'first star' of the game.

In case you have forgotten, Nino performed well in last season's playoffs for his Western Hockey League Portland Winterhawks, putting up an 8-8-16 line in 13 games. His team came into the playoffs as a five seed and advanced one round, eventually losing in the Conference Semi-Finals.

This season it's a different story, as he is playing with a much stronger team. Portland earned the top seed in the Western Conference. He has more firepower around him, and he's a year older and more experienced.

He's off to a splendid start, and I'll provide periodic updates. The Winterhawks are up 2 games to 0 in their best of 7 series against Everett. Game 3 is on Wednesday, March 30th.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

On The Cusp

The title of this post has a double meaning. While the Islanders are on the cusp of playoff elimination for the 2010-2011 season (one point gained by Buffalo or lost by the Islanders will seal their fate), they are also nearing a better, happier fate.

While I believed the Islanders were going to be a playoff team this season, it just didn't happen. A combination off injuries, inconsistent play, and some bad luck doomed them. And though by now I sound like a broken record, seemingly saying it at the end of every season, I really think next year they're going to be the story of the year.

Let me put it this way: For years I have bemoaned the Islanders' lack of scoring punch. That argument no longer has legs. I don't think we need to keep saying that for the first time in a long time the Isles have a legitimate top two lines. The team is on pace to score 229 goals this season, and that's without full years from Kyle Okposo and blue-liner Mark Streit. And I'll throw another name into the mix that I think will help the team next season: Nino Niederreiter.

Nino, who had a trial with the Isles at the start of the season, is having a terrific season in the Western Hockey League. He has 41 goals in 55 games, which prorated over a full season makes him one of that league's top goal scorers. Naysayers will mention that he hasn't done anything in the NHL yet, and they have a point, but I'm pretty high on him.

Now add a defense with some burgeoning young stars (Hamonic, MacDonald, and likely DeHaan) and veterans like Mark Streit to the mix, plus presumably another top 5 draft talent (who the Isles always seem to rush right to the NHL), and it starts to come together. If Garth Snow signs a free agent over the summer, even better. Which leaves only one remaining question mark: goaltending.

I'm not going to pretend to know what the goalie situation next season will be. I'm pretty sure Rick will be given a shot. ;) I'd like to see Kevin Poulin establish his career. Other than that, your guess is as good as mine.

As for the game at hand, the East-leading Philadelphia Flyers came to town on Saturday (3/26) night. Head Coach Jack Capuano liked the way his Islanders competed, but they didn't finish their chances. Young Philadelphia forward James van Reimsdyk netted a hat trick, the first of his career, and the Islanders fell 4-1.

But the theme in the dressing room after the loss was all about the future. Rick DiPietro, the losing goalie, sounded a very positive tone for next season.

"I'd like to get everyone healthy here, " he began. "I wish we had a time machine to get to October and start the new season." On the other hand, he noted that the slew of injuries allowed some younger players to assume leadership roles and sped up their maturity. He viewed that as a positive outcome in a bad situation.

He lamented that the team never really had a chance to play as a full unit, even in training camp. They lead the league in man-games lost, with well over 500.

But he, like this author, certainly feels that the Islanders are on the cusp of very good things next season.

News and notes:

- The Islanders were eliminated when Buffalo defeated New Jersey before the Isles fell to Philadephia.

- Earlier in the week, defensemen Mark Streit and Andy MacDonald were declared out for the remainder of the season.

-Kyle Okposo had several chances to score, including a pretty 2-on-1 with line mate Michael Grabner. Kyle did not record a point, though.

- The attendance at Nassau Coliseum was 15,458.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Isles Stay Afloat, Barely

For the entirety of my hockey-viewing life, the Islanders have been an above-.500 franchise. Though it was touch-and-go for a while, they will remain so after this season.

The low point came December 16th, 2010, when the Islanders were in very real danger of falling to .500 if they lost to Anaheim that night. With me looking on, three first period goals and 30 saves from Rick DiPietro held off a Ducks comeback and some unpleasant history. The Isles won 3-2 and stayed a winning franchise.

Had they lost, it would have been the first time since 1978 that the Isles were .500 or below. It may not seem like a big deal to some, but I am proud of what this team has accomplished over the years. Though they play a big part, it's not only the Stanley Cup history that makes being a fan of this team worthwhile. Six division titles, 3 conference titles, 7 100+ point seasons, and the retired numbers all add to the lore.

So currently at 9 games above .500 (1311-1302-347-73) with 9 games remaining, we can be sure that at least in 2010-2011 the Isles will not dip into losing territory. And I take a measure of pride in that.

After flirting with the dark side of .500, I think things are about to take a very positive turn on Long Island. But that's a topic for another day and another post.

(Though this contained my original research, official team statistician Eric Hornick wrote an even more in-depth piece about the Isles' history of the .500 mark back in December. Please check out the incredibly detailed work on his own blog, Forever 1940).

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Rick Returns; Grabner Hits 30

When we last saw Rick DiPietro, he was getting his face crushed by goalie Brent Johnson of the Pittsburgh Penguins. I'm happy to say that Rick played his first game since that incident on Saturday (3/19) night, and secured the win as well.

The Islanders defeated the Florida Panthers, 4-3, in a shootout. The win pulled the Isles into a tie with Florida at 68 points. Neither team will make the postseason, though. For Florida, this will be their tenth consecutive season outside of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Islanders fans, having missed 'only' four
seasons of playoffs, have it relatively good, I suppose. Perhaps 'good' isn't the right word...

Michael Grabner, waiver wire pickup extraordinaire, notched his 30th goal of the season. What a find he has been. Though he may not win the Calder Memorial Trophy as the league's best rookie, he deserves serious consideration.

Kyle, on the other hand, is in another one of his funks. He took a -3 in the game, and one friend of mine expressed concerned that he doesn't look completely healthy. While I don't think that's the case, I would like to see Kyle silence his critics with a goal and/or a few points in the upcoming games.

The Isles next take on Tampa Bay on Tuesday, the return home for games against Atlanta and conference leaders Philadelphia. The season, as a Rangers fan friend gently reminded me, has only 9 games remaining.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Milestones Are Hit But Isles Miss

It'll be a short post tonight because losses always seem to leave me a bit uninspired.

From a team perspective, Tuesday night's 6-3 loss to the New York Rangers was disheartening. The Islanders had no life in the first period, falling behind within the first four minutes of the game. The team was down 2-0 at the end of the first period before deciding to play up to their abilities. They were able to score two goals of their own within the first four minutes of the middle frame, but it was all downhill from there as the Isles went back to sleep. Their defense was shoddy and Al Montoya didn't have a particularly good night either, allowing five goals to get behind him in forty minutes.

It was, however, a night for personal milestones. Matt Moulson reached his 30th goal (after a scoring change) for the second consecutive season. The shaggy forward plucked out of obscurity by General Manager Garth Snow became the first Islander to accomplish the feat since Mariusz Czerkawski did it in the 1999-2000 and 2000-2001 seasons. Congratulations, Matt.

Even more exciting, on the night when John Tavares played his 150th career NHL game, he netted his 50th career goal. He became the youngest Islander to reach the mark, surpassing Bryan Trottier's record. With 60 points already in the bank this year (and 54 from last), he has quickly amassed a robust 114 career points (50-64-114).

If J.T. is able to notch four more goals in the team's eleven remaining games, he and Moulson will become the first Islander teammates since Alexei Yashin and Mark Parrish in 2001-2002 to each score 30. Though there was a time when I didn't think he'd get there, I am starting to believe 30 goals is very possible for the 20 year-old sophomore.

*(Michael Grabner currently sits at 28 goals this year; see the 'News and notes' section below for more on this).

The Islanders continue to try to play spoiler on Friday, as they travel to Carolina to take on the playoff-hopeful Hurricanes.

News and notes:

- Kyle was held off the scoring sheet for his second straight game, and goalless for his sixth. Knowing that he has a history of streaky play, I am not worried about his game, as he would still be on pace for near 50 points this season had he not lost so much time to injury.

- Russian prospect Kirill Petrov didn't have a good regular season (8-11-19 in 49 games), but it appears he had a decent playoffs, scoring 2 goals and 2 assists in 6 games. His Kontinental Hockey League team, Yugra, was eliminated by Metallurg Magnitogorsk.

- Should Moulson, Grabner, and Tavares all reach 30 goals this season, they will become the first Islanders trio to perform the feat since Steve Thomas, Pierre Turgeon, Benoit Hogue, and Derek King all did it in 1993-1994.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Okposo To Appear In Midtown

A quick reminder for you, as Kyle Okposo and friends (Michael Grabner, Andrew MacDonald, and Frans Nielsen) will be appearing at the NHL team store in Manhattan. The event will take place on Monday, March 14th and will be hosted by the affable Billy Jaffe. A question and answer session with the players will begin at 4 PM.

For more details please visit the official team site.

The Islanders will take on the Rangers the following evening at Madison Square Garden.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Isles Bite Back Against Boston

First things first: though they are in the middle of a resurgence, the Islanders won’t be making the playoffs this year. I make that statement with some degree of certainty, because even though they sit “only” 10 points out of eighth place, to leap over five teams while they play each other is nearly impossible. The math just doesn’t work. Especially in a league that gives a point to teams for doing little more than showing up each night.

Keeping that in mind, the Islanders again faced an elite “measuring stick” opponent on Friday night, as they hosted Boston and their suddenly controversial big man Zdeno Chara. Chara injured Montreal’s Max Pacioretty with a hit two games prior. No suspension was handed out. Because of this, Islanders fans booed him each time he touched the puck as if he was Dale Hunter.

Al Montoya started in goal for the Islanders. It was the first time I had seen Montoya play in person. He played well, stopping 26 shots. He allowed a first period goal to Nathan Horton with about 3 and one half minutes left in the frame.

But in a game that my colleagues and I agreed was “groan-worthy” early on, the Isles didn’t convert their opportunities while Boston did. Later faced with a 5-on-3 power play, Montoya couldn’t prevent a second goal.

The momentum of the game then suddenly turned. Matt Moulson netted his 29th goal of the season just before the second period ended. Michael Grabner fired a goal behind Tim Thomas early in the third to tie the game. The building was rocking, and it wasn't the visiting fans making the noise.

John Tavares had a sweet backhanded pass to help Moulson on his goal, while Kyle Okposo assisted on Garbner’s. For Kyle, it was assist number 11.

He didn’t have to wait too long for number twelve, assisting on Jack Hillen’s go-ahead goal just 4 minutes and 30 seconds later. The Islanders were buzzing and all of a sudden Boston had their fans groaning and looking stunned.

"I think that's a huge goal at the end of the second [period]," Kyle said after the game. "A two goal deficit especially against a great team like Boston is tough to overcome."

The Islanders sealed the 4-2 comeback victory when P.A. Parenteau was mugged on his way to an empty net goal. The officials made the correct call and awarded the tally.

For his two assist effort, Kyle earned the second star of the game. In 25 games, he has 16 points.

Coach Jack Capuano was pleased after the game, making sure to mention that the attitude in locker room is very relaxed at this point in the season. Critics will say that it's because they don't have much to play for except in a spoiler's role, but the stats confirm that the Islanders have been one of hockey's best teams since the All-Star break.

Though I don't give them much of a shot for postseason play this year, I am looking forward to seeing three players (Moulson, Grabner, and Tavares) reach the 30 goal mark. With full healthy seasons from Kyle and Mark Streit added to the mix, hopefully this time next year we will be talking about the Islanders clinching a playoff spot.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Like Kyle, I Have Returned

For the first time in what seems forever, I watched live Islanders hockey! After having to endure a near complete lack of Internet coverage and then a fried laptop power adapter, everything is back in working order.

My return game was a treat. The Isles won an overtime seesaw thriller against Toronto (3/8) when Blake Comeau netted the overtime winner. Comeau, who is having a breakout season (though last season's numbers were quite respectable), is now one goal away from scoring 20.

Kyle Okposo had an assist in a game which could have seen a lot more goals for New York, if only those pesky goalposts wouldn't have gotten in the way. The team hit posts at least four times, it looked like. Nevertheless, after 24 games played Kyle is sitting on four goals and 10 assists.

Though I've missed most of it (and I promise that won't happen again), the Islanders are experiencing a bit of a resurgence. Thanks to the New York Daily News' Peter Botte, we learn that the Isles are 21-14-5 in their last 40 games, the most points in their division since December 16th.

Even I hadn't realized they've been playing that well.

Though the team is on the brink of division title elimination (and realistically won't make the playoffs either), I am fairly pleased. I am also genuinely excited for next year. It's too bad they suffered such a long dry spell earlier this season, or I'd be excited about *this* season.

Though I missed most of his games, goalie Al Montoya has been a revelation. Before tonight's three goals (did I mention the Isles won 4-3?) his Goals Against Average was a slim 1.93. Good stuff.

I'll have a detailed post of why I'm optimistic for 2011-2012 posted soon. For my regular readers, I truly apologize for missing such a large chunk of games. Just know that I was taking care of family obligations, and everything is fine now.

Let's watch the last 14 games of this season out in style together! See you all Friday night from the Coliseum.