Saturday, April 27, 2013

Kyle's Final Stats

Just a quick note. Now that the regular season has been completed, you can see on the right that Kyle Okposo finished the season with 4 goals and 20 assists.

While it wasn't the goal output he desired, he will be going to the postseason for the first time in his National Hockey League career. He has told me many times that a playoff berth, more than any personal goal or milestone, has been something he has desired as a professional.

While the Islanders' opponent has yet to be determined, I am pleased that announce that his first playoff series will also be mine, at least in terms of attendance.

As fate would have it, our playoff debuts coincide because of a foolish decision I made 20 years ago to forsake tickets to the 1993 Eastern Conference Finals. At the time I figured I would have plenty of opportunities to take in a playoff game at Nassau Coliseum in coming seasons.


Anyway, I'll try to bring you the same (heavily biased) coverage of their playoff games that I have provided for the past six seasons. Hopefully we'll take a fun ride together this May (and June?).

As always, thanks for reading. I appreciate all of you.

P.S. For a look at Kyle's career stats, check

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

We HAVE Playoffs!

Tuesday (4/23) night was the night I have waited over six years for. No, let me correct that. It was the night that we, Islanders fans, have waited for. We've waited through six seasons of misery, injuries, bad breaks, bad bounces, bad luck, and draft lotteries.

But the wait is over. The New York Islanders are back in the Stanley Cup Playoffs!

Kyle Okposo, Josh Bailey, John Tavares, Matt Moulson, Frans Nielsen, and so many others will get their first tastes of the National Hockey League postseason.

But as excited and pleased as I am for them, I'm even happier for the fans that have been with them through the rebuild.

I'm happy for the folks in Loudville section. I'm happy for the college kids who routinely sit in the top few rows of Nassau Coliseum with an obstructed view of the scoreboard. I'm happy for the season ticket holders who held on to their seats, knowing that better days would return for Long Island's hockey team.

I'm even pleased for the doubters, naysayers, and bandwagon jumpers who have watched this team grow into a (hopefully) legitimate title contender in the coming seasons.

I feel somewhat vindicated as well, because just as things were getting ugliest for Kyle Okposo this year, he and his linemates powered the Isles to a 11-1-3 record in their last 15 games, seemingly growing into legitimate scoring force in unison.

In the month of April, Kyle has recorded 10 points. While he had a subpar season, he salvaged it in the last two weeks, feeding beautiful passes to Nielsen and Bailey in big spot after big spot. He stopped turning the puck over. He played a true power forward position. And his line added a scoring compliment the first line.

He stepped up when he was called upon. All three players did.

Even last night, down a goal to Carolina with time dwindling in the game, he found a way to get to the net and help the team secure a massive point in the standings (the tying goal was eventually reviewed and credited to Tavares).

Though his final scoring totals won't be flashy, if you prorate his assist total over a full 82-game NHL season, he would have set a career high (approximately 36).

But in a game filled with numbers, there's only one that matters right now: 0. That's the "magic number" of points needed for the New York Islanders to clinch a playoff spot.

Congratulations, everyone. See you in the playoffs! (Damn, that sounds good, huh?)

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Critical Games Coming Up

While it is protocol to stay stoic in the press box, I'll freely admit that I had a hard time getting over last Saturday (4/13) night's 1-0 overtime loss to the New York Rangers.

Ask anyone who was with me; I was a nervous mess up on the press level and was going "Jerry Tarkanian" on the pile of napkins immediately to my left.

In that contest, the Islanders outplayed their Manhattan rivals for long stretches of the game, however they were unable to solve Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist. The Isles rang several posts, but a win wasn't in the cards that evening.

A silver lining was found, however, when the Islanders' overtime "loser point" allowed them to retain an edge over the Rangers in the standings at the end of play on Saturday.

Fast forward to last night (4/16), when the Isles demolished the nearly hapless Florida Panthers, 5-2. It was a game the Islanders had to win, and they did. Kyle Okposo chipped in an assist, raising his season's total to 19 points, which you can see to the right.

As an aside, the victory moved Head Coach Jack Capuano into second place all-time in Islanders coaching victories, with 82. He has some work to do before he catches Hall of Famer Al Arbour (740).

Additional good news, not of the Islanders' doing, came later in the evening when it was revealed that the Rangers lost to Philadelphia, frittering away the momentum and points they had gained in their win on Long Island.

But this Islanders team isn't about looking back. It's about looking forward. And staring them right in the face are two important games that could seal their playoff fate.

Tomorrow night (Thursday, 4/18) the Isles will take on a tough Toronto team at Air Canada Centre. The Maple Leafs currently hold the 5 seed in the Eastern Conference, and if New York has designs on moving up the table they likely need a victory. The two points would also go a long way in helping them vault clear of the trailing Rangers and Winnipeg Jets, who both sit on 46 points. The Islanders currently possess 49. The Rangers have a game in hand.

Taking a longer view, on Saturday (4/20) afternoon the Islanders travel to Winnipeg to take on the aforementioned Jets. As a critical "4 point game,"  a win in this one would basically assure the Islanders of a trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

As well as the Islanders have been playing of late, it would be nice for them to win (or at least earn points) in both games, but if there's a "must have" game coming up, it's the one versus Winnipeg.

Thanks for reading, and as always, Let's Go Islanders!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Sticks And Giggles

Everything is going the Islanders way, and frankly it's a little weird.

In a game where I was hoping for them to come away with a point at best, the Islanders went into Boston and improved on their already stellar road record. The 2-1 victory, powered by two Josh Bailey goals and 30 saves from Evegeni Nabokov, moved the Isles' road record to 12-5-2 this season.

You know things are going well when Travis Hamonic appears to have sustained a major knee injury in the first period, only to be back on the ice before the frame ended.

You know things are going the Islanders' way when accidental stick fouls that draw Bruins blood are missed by referees.

You know things are going well when you step into a bar during the third period and more people are watching and cheering for the Orange and Blue than any other game in the place.

The only thing that didn't go well on this night for the Long Islanders was that all of their playoff competition (Ottawa, Washington, and Winnipeg) also won.

It's April, and Islanders hockey is all the rage. And it doesn't feel like it will all come crashing down, either.

The Islanders are 8-1-1 over their last ten games. They entertain a Rangers team that trails them in the standings on Saturday (4/13) night.

Right now, the Islanders are living a charmed life. And it feels a little strange, at least to this fan.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

180 Degree Turnaround

Hockey players like to talk when they win. The New York Islanders sure have had a lot to say lately.

What a difference a month or two makes in sports. And what a departure from the dark days and tight lipped post-game debriefings that formerly defined this hockey team.

Fresh off their fourth consecutive win on home ice (a 4-1 victory over Philadelphia) and seventh win in nine tries, the Isles' locker room was buzzing on Tuesday (4/9) night.

"I've never been in this situation as a pro," Kyle Okposo said of the team's current playoff push. "We're just enjoying it and we're just focused on gettng two points." He added that the team has cut out the mistakes that had led to a number of previous losses and seemingly never ending frustration.

Suddenly the days of blown leads seem well in the rear view mirror, though Head Coach Jack Capuano offered a slightly different argument.

"I think if you go back and look at some of those games, some of the bounces didn't go our way too. I mean there were some crazy bounces that a puck found a way to go in a net."

With all respect to Mr. Capuano, though, who is he kidding? Tuesday night's game offered a perfect example of what has changed for the better.

Early in the first period Colin McDonald crashed into netminder Evegeni Nabokov on a shot he might have otherwise saved. The play was reviewed, and the Flyers were (rightfully) credited with a 1-0 lead. The Islanders rallied past the adversity and eventually took charge, responding with four goals of their own.

Capuano's "unlucky" Isles would have melted faster than a snow cone in July at Jones Beach.

It was this same Philadelphia team, let's not forget, that wiped the floor with the Islanders in a 7-0 home defeat on February 18th.

"We know we can go out there and play with any team in the league. I think we've proven that," said John Tavares, who scored his team-leading 24th goal of the season.

A statement like that is hard to believe when you hear it, considering where this team has been, but it's the new reality on Long Island. With the win, the Islanders vaulted into 6th place points tie in the Eastern Conference, though Ottawa holds a game in hand.

"We're doing the right things when we get into the game. We've been starting a lot better lately than we did earlier in the year, we're obviously playing much more consistent [sic] throughout games." Tavares summarized. "We're playing much better at home."

In addition to his explanation, the biggest differences I can see are threefold. Maturity, communication, and confidence in the face of adversity.

The core of the team has been together for two to three seasons. Tavares, Matt Moulson, Kyle Okposo, Michael Grabner, Josh Bailey have "grown up" together; they know what to expect from each other. While Moulson isn't a youngster, his career has without a doubt flourished as an Islander. The core has finally matured after years of talking about it.

They communicate better on the ice. Capuano once again singled out Frans Nielsen and Travis Hamonic as somewhat unsung heroes. And while Kyle, for example, will still make the occasional 'pass to nobody,' he has been performing the fundamentals of offensive zone play well and has been stronger with the puck.

This has lead to confidence in the face of adversity. It means no longer blowing late leads to teams like Carolina. It means rallying to win against a more physically imposing Flyers squad. It means playing smarter and not turning the puck over in your own zone. It means getting to the net, and getting pucks on net.

"We feel confident. We want to get the lead and when we get it we stress about trying to get that next [goal] and really putting pressure on them and making things hard on the other team, not sitting back."

Well said, John Tavares.

The Islanders will get another chance to test their mettle when they head to Boston on Thursday (4/11) night to face a tough Bruins team.

Should they come away with a win, you can be sure of two things: the turnaround is for real, and playoff games are very likely coming back to Nassau Coliseum.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Better By The Day

"The Islanders are getting better by the day." - Robert "Butch" Goring, 4/2/2013

On Tuesday night, Islanders announcer "Butch" Goring said what many of us have felt for a very long time. The young Islanders are improving.

A quick look at the National Hockey League's Eastern Conference standings confirms this. The New York Islanders are currently in possession of a playoff spot (8th).

Coming off a big 3-1 road win against New Jersey, the team immediately ahead of the Isles in the standings, on Monday, the Islanders needed a win against Winnipeg on Tuesday (4/2). And they got it.

Prior to the tilt, the Islanders hadn't won the back end of consecutive games this season in five tries. They also hadn't gotten a victory out of any goaltender other than Evegeni Nabokov.

The team broke both of those unenviable streaks against the Jets with a 5-2 win. Kevin Poulin won his first game of the season, recording 23 saves.

Matt Moulson broke a streak of his own, scoring a goal after a 13 game goal-less drought. And get this, young Anders Lee, the 2009 draft pick from Notre Dame, scored on the first shot of his NHL career.

"I'm just trying to enjoy it and soak it all in," said Lee after the game. When media legend Stan Fischler asked him if he belongs at this level, he added, "I think so."

So with everything suddenly going right for the Isles, there was one more bit of pleasant news delivered: Ryan Strome, Garth Snow's 2011 first round draft pick, reportedly scored on his first professional shot at Bridgeport. He had a goal and an assist in his game, and many Isles fans are salivating over soon seeing his talents on display with the top club.

As for the immediate future, the Islanders will try to keep the good feelings rolling and improve their playoff standing on Thursday (4/4) night in Washington, D.C.

As Frans Nielsen opined after the Winnipeg victory, "[There are] still a lot of points we have to play for."

But make no mistake, the optimism surrounding this team is growing by the day.