Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Rolling With The Punches

Where to begin?

Like the old television series 'Dragnet,' let's start with the facts. Coming into Tuesday (5/7) night's game in Uniondale, the Islanders found themselves trailing their best-of-seven series with Pittsburgh two games to one. They had also lost their previous seven playoff games on home ice, dropping their home winning percentage at "Fort Neverlose" below 66% for the first time since 1976.

After losing a 4-3 overtime heartbreaker on Sunday (5/5) afternoon, the Islanders had put themselves in a perilous position. Lose again, and they would find themselves down 3-1 in the series with a good chance of quickly closing the book on the season. The fans, who had eagerly awaited the return of playoff hockey to Long Island for six miserable seasons, would likely not see another game at Nassau Coliseum for four months.

Rather than try to find the words to tell you what an up and down, see-saw battle Game Four was, it might just be easier for you to watch the condensed highlights, courtesy of NHL.com.

Once again the crowd, in full support of their Isles, was amazing. Islanders fans seem to always been in full throat. It's quite a scene.

The emotions of the game seemed to ebb and flow drastically; the Islanders would gain a lead. They would fritter it away just as easily. They would take a punch, so to speak, but give one right back just as hard.

Travis Hamonic, amidst a very crowded and cheery post-win locker room, may have said it best.

I asked him how it was that his team "keeps getting punched in the mouth" and it doesn't seem to faze them. The 22-year old (with his own dental issues) replied, "When you only have one tooth you don't care." What a great line.

"The Hammer," as he's known, had a great game too, logging over 28 minutes of ice time. Defensive teammate and team captain Mark Streit scored two goals. John Tavares scored the winning goal and earned the evening's "first star" honor.

Kyle Okposo, who scored a mere four regular season goals, has played like a man on a mission. He netted his third goal of the series at a pivotal moment, banking the puck in off a shaky Marc-André Fleury.

But the win didn't come completely issue-free.

Andrew MacDonald, Hamonic's partner, broke his hand during the game and likely will not return for the remainder of the season.

Evegeni Nabokov, who Head Coach Jack Capuano has ridden nearly to the breaking point, had another subpar game, again allowing four goals. Not all of them were solely his fault, mind you, as there was some shoddy defensive positioning at times in front of him, a few deflected pucks, and a horrendous shift change that directly led to a Penguins goal.

Lastly, I'm usually not one to criticize officiating. I believe, whether you agree or disagree, that blaming the zebras is the domain of the sore loser and/or whiner. Let me be clear, though, the officiating in the series to this point has been putrid.

There have been blatant penalties missed, strange calls on the ice, and Pittsburgh has taken clear liberties with several Islanders players and not been made to pay for it.

Let me just briefly show a clip of what I mean. Here's Brenden Morrow face-slamming (#53) Casey Cizikas behind the play four or five times:


Is this part of professional hockey? And is this that hard to miss? Come on, guys. Get it together for the rest of the series, please.

All in all, though, it was a great night for Long Island. The Islanders, who began the series as heavy underdogs, have at least given themselves a chance to defeat the top seeded team in the East. They've already exceeded many of the pundits' expectations by just getting to this point.

I'm cautiously optimistic. If they can take everything Pittsburgh can throw at them, and so far they have, they might just shock the hockey world and advance to the Conference Semifinals.


Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Mental Game

Anyone who knows me knows I'm not into the technical aspects of hockey. It's not that I wouldn't love to fully understand that facet of the game, I'm willing to learn. It's just that I never played ice hockey and have more of a fan's perspective than one of a participant.

Taking it even a step farther, I have trouble even watching the postseason games. With more on the line, I get too nervous and am prone to outbursts of violence. :)

That said, here are a few points to possibly help the Islanders win their first playoff series in twenty years:

  • Going into the series with the Pittsburgh Penguins, I felt there would be one game where the Islanders would be blown out. As it turns out, that game was Game 1. The Islanders rebounded nicely in Game two, evening the series with a 4-3 win. This guy had something to do with it. Now level again, the initial 'punch in the mouth' is behind them.
  • Continuing with that line of thinking, the Islanders find themselves in an even series and they haven't even played their best game yet. Game 1 was a mess; the follow up started off terribly as well but the Isles luckily found their legs before they were buried. A flukey goal (we'll take them) won the game for New York.
  • The Isles need to draw inspiration from last year's Los Angeles Kings. Sure, they may be an eighth seed, but great things happened for last year's (Western) eight. This is the NHL. 'Eights' beat 'ones.'
  • The Islanders need to feed off their crowd. Sunday will feature Uniondale's first postseason game in six years. The fans are ready. They're actually more than ready. An opening goal for the home side within the first ten minutes of game would likely bring the arena down.
  • A key to victory will be to do what worked during the regular season. At the risk of getting "technical," they need to stay strong on the puck and fire shots at the Pittsburgh netminder. We don't yet know if they'll be facing Marc-Andr√© Fleury or Tomas Vokoun. Either way, the Islanders need to keep that man seeing rubber all afternoon.
  • The hard part is over. The Islanders somehow, almost inexplicably, earned a split on road ice. They control home ice right now. Don't give it up.
  • Finally, to each player, just play your game. You functioned as a team to reach this point. Continue to play that way. Josh Bailey has looked like a changed man. Evegeni Nabokov has done all that has been asked of him. The secondary scorers have scored.
Remember, the Pittsburgh roster has lots of talent, but they're not invincible. Of course, it's still a tall task to win the series, but it can be done.