Monday, December 29, 2014

Big Boy Pants Shopping

About a week prior to the Christmas break, the New York Islanders got sucked into a media black hole originating in Edmonton.  The dumpster fire-level state of the Oilers franchise - a familiar one to us Isles fans - exploded after the firing of head coach Dallas Eakins.  The general manager Craig MacTavish insinuated that a full reassessment of the players could lead to a trade of anyone, including the top guys.  The best player on the team happens to be a top-line left wing, a position that Islander fans have been looking for their GM to fill for franchise center John Tavares.  The perfect storm of trade rumors spun up quicker than you can say "E5".

To be fair, I took part in the flurry a bit myself.  Trade talk is genuinely fun for any sports fan.  It's why sports trade rumor web sites exist.  No fan is immune to its appeal.  On the rare occasion when a team executive steps up and directly throws big names into the air, they become the Outbreak monkey.  The rumors quickly spread from there and not long after, we're all in an episode of The Walking Dead, just trying to survive the trade speculation zombies.

All teams have their fair share of rumor mongers.  Fans of bad teams want to change everything.  Fans of good teams want that final piece to guarantee a championship.  The common thread is that the team can be fixed (or solidified) with one magic trade.  Happily the Isles are one of the better teams this year, but there's a consensus that they could use a top left wing to play along side Tavares and right wing Kyle Okposo.  I don't disagree with the need for a top line left wing, which made it easy to understand why the supposed availability of someone like Edmonton's Taylor Hall - an all-star calibre left wing - caused such a reaction.

As fun as coming up with trade ideas for Hall was, the reality was I didn't want to see it actually happen.  Not because I didn't like the idea of having him on the Islanders, but because in the real world, acquiring a player like that would subtract a handful of good players who are providing important contributions every game.  No general manager, even the one responsible for the mess that is the Edmonton Oilers is going to trade away their best player without getting a boatload of players and prospects in return.

If the Islanders are going to transition into a contender, they do not make that trade.  Especially in December.  They have no leverage and, most importantly, no need.  They do not need a top line left wing.  They are winning without one.  Contending clubs do not make trades that impact the roster negatively.  And yes, getting Taylor Hall would have had a negative impact on the overall roster.

Big boy clubs don't act like that.  They wait until the deadline when they have more leverage and can get the best deal.  Luckily, Islanders GM Garth Snow didn't participate in any of the silliness.  All of the credible people covering the team said no trade was ever discussed.  From a fan perspective, I've come to appreciate Snow's patience.  It's a trait that annoyed many fans during the rebuild, but it's essential to a successful rebuilding and equally important to maintaining a competitive roster.

Not only did the front office not bother with silly early season blockbuster trades that would decimate the depth of the roster, but the players themselves did their part by winning back-to-back games (one on the road) against very good opponents in Detroit and Tampa Bay.  The latter game was one of the more exciting outcomes as the team scored two goals in 12 seconds to take the lead late in the third period.

Getting their big boy pants on is one thing, but making sure they fit properly is another.  After the thrilling win over the Lightning, they lost at home to the Montreal Canadiens thanks to a great performance by their goaltender Carey Price.  Christmas dinner didn't taste any worse because of that loss.  The Isles were still near the top of their division and one of the best teams in the league.  It was fun to see my Ranger fan family members for the holidays.

I was still heating up leftovers for my meals when the NHL returned from the holiday break.  I was enjoying my warmed up lasagne when the team took a 3-0 lead against the worst team in the league, the Buffalo Sabres.  However, like they did in back-to-back games earlier in the month, they would blow the 3 goal lead and lose (this time in a shootout - their first OT/SO loss of the year).  Seems the belt buckle on those big boy pants came lose again and the Islanders got caught with their pants down.

Buffalo is terrible, but they've won their share of games.  They've beaten a number of top teams.  Even though the loss was tough to accept, one of the central themes of this season was making sure the team reacted positively to such losses.  When the next game came around - this time against division rival Washington - they pulled up their big boy pants again and took a 3-0 lead in the 3rd period.  Then the Capitals scored.  Then they scored again.  Then again.  And here we were.  Pants down.  Again.

Speaking of "final piece" trades, the acquisition of Johnny Boychuk (and Nick Leddy) was a contributing factor to me starting this blog.  Those trades felt like "final piece" trades.  History will tell us if they really were, but for this game one of those guys were the right piece.  Boychuk scored in OT to win the game and averted a fan crisis after another squandered lead.  The big boy pants still don't fit, but they're back on and the team is adjusting the belt.

Which is better than I can do after all that lasagne.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

To Be Rid Of It

The journey to elite status for a franchise is never quick.  In order to get back to being a Stanley Cup contender (especially in the salary cap era), there's lots of heartache and despair to endure.  A number of teams have made the journey from irrelevance to contender, but the New York Islanders have have laid out quite the path for fans over the last 20 years.  One does not simply walk into the Final.

It's not too big of a stretch to imagine Isles fans as the hobbits of the NHL fanbase.  Small in numbers.  Proud but lacking importance.  Happy to live in their own corner of the world without wanting to be bothered.  When outsiders happened to come by, we'd try and tune out the ridicule until they passed.  When it got real bad, some of us would just want to disappear.

It was sad, of course, to feel like this about your favorite team.  Apathy takes root and it's grasp is tough to break free from.  Coping mechanisms like cynicism become reflex actions.  Just how ingrained this is in me became apparent over this past weekend.  The Islanders had suffered through their second 3-game losing streak.  After the first set of losses,  I wrote about the conscious effort I went through to fight these old habits.  I felt I was getting better at handling disappointing games.

Then the Isles took a 3-goal lead into the 3rd period in Minnesota and bad things happened.  I went to bed pissed, which was a regular occurrence in previous years and really snapped me back to a mindset I thought I'd left behind.  Another loss followed and I was living in flashbacks of Novembers past.  As frustrating as it was, it was also familiar.  Prior to the game against the Chicago Blackhawks, I attended a wedding that had plenty of Ranger fan friends and family members.  There was a lot of ribbing back and forth and lot of self-deprecation on my part.

In other words, the same conversations I'd had many times over the previous years.  It was as it had always been.  It was easy.  I embraced it.  Then the Islanders beat the Blackhawks and I thought to myself, "Well at least they were able to win that game."  It felt like all the other "nice games" the Islanders had surprised me with over the last 20 years.  It was how I processed wins that I felt in my subconscious shouldn't have happened.  A tendency I've had for as long as I can remember.

And I didn't want it anymore.

Transforming from an apathetic fan to one that's invested in expectation is a hell of a thing.  The Islanders had (if we're being totally honest) a shocking offseason and a great start to the year.  We were on our way and it felt different right from the start (hence the existence of this blog).  It was all going to change and I wanted to experience every part of it.

This also meant experiencing the tough stretches in a different way.  It's nearly guaranteed that the Islanders will face another losing streak (or 2 or 3).  Even the top teams go through slumps.  However, when there's such an easy response you can dial up at a moments notice, handling those slumps with positivity has proved to be as hard as giving up the Ring.

This adventure is focused on me as a fan and my support - my Fellowship - is the team.  They are on the journey with me, learning and growing as well.  However, they are also more experienced and sure of themselves than we fans are.  Kyle Okposo provided some needed Gandalfian wisdom after Saturday's victory (as quoted by NY Daily News beat writer Stephen Lorenzo):

Guide us, o wise one.

I'm not sure how far we'll all get on this season's quest, but it's never been about winning a Stanley Cup (although that would be quite swell).  When it ends, I want my reflex action to be the positivity I currently must consciously conjure.  I want to be rid of the apathy and save the sarcasm for the minor moments of levity.  I just hope I don't have to toss any of my fishsticks memorabilia into a pit of lava.  That stuff seems like it's going to be worth something real soon.

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Choice

Fans of perennially bad teams are the emotional lotto players of sports.  We faithfully buy our tickets every season in hopes of getting a winner.  Safe to say, we always end the season crumpling up our worthless tickets and throwing them into the trash bin.

This year (so far anyway) us Islander fans feel like we've finally hit a winner.  Following the victory over Philly in which the Isles thoroughly outplayed the Flyers, the team has continued to win regularly.  The interesting aspect of all the victories (five in seven games) is that a few key players were injured and as a result the team didn't play all that well.  Jaroslav Halak helped carry the team though the rough sea of roster callups and line adjustments.  The defense was especially affected as the team's ice time leader, Johnny Boychuk, was one of the casualties.  Other very important regulars (Lubomir Visnovsky, Travis Hamonic) also went down with injuries.  Out of the forward group, Cal Clutterbuck and Josh Bailey also got banged up and missed time.

In past seasons, such a recipe was a guaranteed disaster that would derail any positive momentum.  The caboose had exploded and the rest of the train was going to go with it.  Not this year.  Seems this team is more than capable of handling it.

The Islanders have the most wins in the league.  They are missing half of their top 6 defenseman and two important forwards.  Additionally, their top line isn't really producing at a consistent rate.  This streak is mostly about Halak, who was named the NHL's First Star of the month for November.  It's not hard to see how the team could navigate all the pitfalls of the season by leaning on it's balanced roster.  This will help preempt future anxiety for the next time the team has to deal with injuries and slumps.  That next time maybe Halak doesn't carry the team, but John Tavares and Kyle Okposo do.  Or maybe it's the SNL (Kid) Line or the top defense paring of Boychuk and Nick Leddy.  The players who will step up to carry the team when they need it could come from any place on the roster.  It's a comforting and alien thought for fans and has us thinking of bigger, shinier, silvery-er things as the season progresses.

It's not just us die-hards, either.  A number of articles were posted that dove into the Islander resurgence and the possibility of not just success this year, but long term.  The discussion is a fun one to have for obvious reasons, but it made me wonder about weighing the current season versus the next ten.

Would I take a Stanley Cup this year if it meant not winning again for 10 years OR would I accept a playoff loss this May in exchange for being a top-5 contending team - one that could maybe win multiple championships for the next decade?

It's a hell of a thing to think about.

If you ask the fans of the Anaheim Ducks or Pittsburgh Penguins, winning that one Stanley Cup was an amazing moment.  But in the years since, with all the ultra-high expectations and playoff losing, they probably have some conflicting feelings.  Since winning the championship, enjoying the regular season has been rather difficult because they all know it won't matter when the playoffs start.  And then the post-season arrives and it's:

Islanders fans have dealt with the awful play of the team for over a decade, so without expectations handling all that losing was just a matter of letting the apathy wash your pain away.  It's two different kinds of failure and honestly, I've had enough sports-related misfortune in my life to fill an empty Miami arena on a Tuesday in November.

Taking the "win now" choice, I'd have one glorious championship year that was bookended by two separate eras of differing disappointments.  I think it's a fair bet that a majority of fans would decide to take this.  It gives us a Cup, which is really all we want at the end of the day.  It may be hard to sit by during future seasons knowing that no matter how good the team is during the year, they will fail in playoffs.  This is a horrifying Groundhog Day-loop to be in as a sports fan.  So, at least having one championship eases the pain.  I'd rather be the Penguins or Ducks than (*shudders*) the San Jose Sharks or Vancouver Canucks.  This is the risk of not taking the single Cup.  You give up the one victorious year in hopes of winning a bunch in the future and it never happens.  The core players get too old or too expensive (a very, very important factor in the salary cap era of the NHL) and the prospect pool dries up because your draft position is awful.


Thinking through that side of the choice almost feels like the decision is a no-brainer.  Except when you think about what could be if the result of the rebuild goes really, really well.

Like, Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings-level well.

It's probably safe to assume that fans of the Hawks and Kings are living in a golden age.  Their team is always a top contender and nearly always performs up to expectations in the playoffs.  They're having their cake and eating it too and everyone loves cake.

It's a very tempting carrot.  More so now that we've seen the team play with success across a number of scenarios and with a decent army of really good prospects yet to arrive.  This outcome is a real possibility.  If it were not, the choice would be easy.  Yet the path is lit and we fans can see it laid out in front of us.  All we need to do is sign away the Stanley Cup this year and hope that path leads to at least one or two other ones at some point.

I've mostly defended Islander GM Garth Snow.  I felt I understood the financial restrictions of the team and realized this meant restocking the prospect pool with really good young players (read: cheap) that could form a good core for a handful of years before they've earned a big pay day.  It's the long, hard plan and I was prepared to let him attempt it.  I was massively disappointed in the 2013 offseason.  Following the wonderful playoff series against Pittsburgh, everyone and their mom seemed to know the Islanders were close to contending.  All they needed to do was sign some bigger ticket free agents or trade one or two of those prospects for a top player.  The proverbial "final piece".  When that didn't happen, I blamed both Snow and owner Charles Wang for not taking the next step.  Wang for keeping the financial chains on and Snow for not using the teams assets (cap space and prospects) to acquire those final pieces.

Skip ahead one year and all that has been rectified.  Spectacularly and wonderfully rectified.

Wang, undoubtedly helped by the sale of the team to new ownership partners ("Yay, new money."), opened up the team wallet and Snow targeted the right players.  He also sat back and took advantage of other GMs in bad situations to land Boychuk and Leddy.  The Islanders adressed every need and didn't compromise their current prospect pool.  They gave up more than a few future draft picks, but that won't affect the team for at least five years.  The team is stacked for the long-term right now.  That's quite a coup.  What else could you ask from your team's general manager? 

The Islanders have as good a chance as any team to be very successful over the next five to ten years.  While that is a most tempting thought, I personally think I'd take the Stanley Cup this year anyway.  There's quite a bit of luck that goes into winning one title (let alone two or more).  That's the x-factor that can't be ignored.  For me, it's the deciding factor.  Looking historically at teams like the Sharks and Canucks plus recent Montreal Canadien and Phialdephia Flyer teams show that one bad bounce or ill-timed injury can derail a playoff run.

I'm not sure I could take the "what if" disappointment if the Islanders were to end up like that.  I'd take the one Cup and happily, if not begrudingly, hold on to it for the next 10+ years while waiting for the next great Isles team to be built.

I mean, I've gotten pretty used to doing that anyway.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014


The Islanders schedule was well packed in the days since the last post.  Back-to-back games that were part of two home-and-home series made for an interesting, rivalry-building week.  Four of the six games were against two of the top teams in the conference, which gave fans and writers plenty of fuel to feed the "Are the Islanders for real?" narrative.  Seemed these games would give that question a definitive answer.

The Isles were able to defeat the struggling Florida Panthers, but it took a shootout to do so.  The next night against the Tampa Bay Lightning, they played decent in front of backup goalie Chad Johnson, but couldn't offset the fatigue and some of Johnson's mistakes.  The team was noticeably tired by the second half of the game.  After watching them win five in a row, I was content to let the loss be what it was.

Take note of this reaction going forward.

Once they returned home and rested (and were in front of their starting goalie), the Isles welcomed Tampa to Long Island and returned to the level of play they'd been consistently achieving.  It was an interesting two games that were nearly mirror-images of each other.  The first game in Tampa, with the Isles on the second part of a road back-to-back, was a tough slog for New York.  They couldn't keep up and gave up goals as the game went on.  When the Lightning arrived at Nassau Coliseum, they were on the second part of their own road back-to-back, having played the Rangers at MSG the night before.  Tampa Bay was able to produce a competitive first period, but couldn't keep up much after that (just as happened to the Isles).  The win was enjoyable (as they all are), but in a different way than I'm personally used to.  The team had just won 5 in a row before losing that final road game.  Isles fans never take losing streaks of more than one game lightly, but as clock wound down on the home win, I wasn't as "high" on it as I'd been after other recent games.  I wondered why and discovered I cared more about the upcoming games against the Pittsburgh Penguins than I did about the Lightning games.  I expected they would play well when they returned home and they did.  My expectations have been reset with this team.  The Tuesday game at home against Tampa was my first tangible reaction to that.

Before the Tampa game started I knew that any loss wouldn't be taken well by the fanbase, but a win wouldn't really register with the hockey world, either.  Playing and competing with the elite Penguins in a home-and-home would.  I wanted that to happen more than a victory against Tampa.  My selfish desire to listen to and read the hockey web-verse raining praise upon my Islanders was turned up to 11 in the days before the first game in Pittsburgh.  I was Veruca Salt walking through this wonderful chocolate factory the Isles had built for us fans.

So of course there I was around 10:30pm on Saturday night, after the Isles had not only competed with, but twice defeated those powerful Penguins, soaking in Twitter timelines and game recaps as if they were my golden goose.  It was a much stronger feeling than what I felt earlier in the year after other wins.  Don't get me wrong, those wins were all fun to experience and I enjoyed the hell out of reading and hearing media folks giving the Isles a nice pat on the back.  However, these victories against Pittsburgh were perception-shifting events.  It wasn't just that the hockey media was giving the Islanders a nice round of applause, they were standing and demanding people start taking notice.  They'd become our bullhorn, amplifying the cheers of the Islander faithful.

By Monday, weekly power rankings had started to trickle out.  Strange things were afoot.  ESPN and The Hockey News both placed the Islanders at the top.  A number of other sites had them in their top 5, with specific mentions of the team's rise.  It was a fun day but the Isles had to play their next game Monday night against the Philadelphia Flyers.  In seasons past, an Islander winning streak was appreciated, but usually handled with plenty of caution.  When certain teams arrived during a good run, it became a foregone conclusion that the fun was about to end.  Historically, the Flyers were one of those teams.

The odd psychology of this season is why I'm writing this blog.  I'm wrestling with conflicting emotions and trying to understand them on a weekly basis.  Before the game, I was a bit sad actually.  It was a classic stopper game.  I don't think my brain had quite allowed for those gaps in hope to fully close, even subconsciously.  I didn't feel like I had enough time to enjoy the spotlight that was shining so brightly on the team.  As the game started and it again became apparent that the Islanders were playing very well, emotions shifted again.

"They are destroying the Flyers right now.  Steve Mason is having one of those epic goalie nights that happen sometimes so they haven't scored.  But this game isn't even close."

This was the first game in which I felt satisfied with the team losing.  I realize how trite and cliche that sounds.  I've said that many times before during the dark days of previous seasons, when the little positives during losing efforts were all I had to work with.

Fact is, when I thought or said that I was totally, completely lying.  Every time.

Even after the aforementioned game in Tampa, I was content but still disappointed.  I understood why they lost and accepted it.  That is different than being satisfied with it.  With this Philly game, it wasn't just that they played well enough to win.  That's happened plenty of times.  Even when they were the worst team in the league, they'd lose games where they competed and outplayed better opponents.  It's that now they are the better team.  They're not the inferior roster that has to hope the other team plays terribly.  Or that a puck bounces one way instead of the other.  Or that their goalie stands on his head to give them a chance to steal a game.  This time, it was the Flyers who were that team.

That's why I could say, for the first time truthfully to myself, that I was satisfied if they'd lost that shootout.  The New York Islanders have flipped the equation.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Learning Curve

Following a Hand Of Frans-touched shootout victory against the defending Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles Kings and a shutout in Arizona against the Coyotes, dare I say that not only is optimism high in IslanderLand, but so is confidence.

The successful West Coast Trip Of Death, in which the Isles won 3 of 5 games, was followed by a 6-0 drubbing of the faltering Colorado Avalanche.  When the sun rose on Wednesday morning, the team was second in the division with an impressive 10 wins in 15 games.  This was far better than the acceptable 8-7 record that I (and many other fans) was willing to accept at this point in the season.

Head coach Jack Capuano has been on quite the roller coaster ride of perception since the start of the year.  Admittedly, I was among those questioning his ability to coach a deeper team with actual NHL players on it.  In the midst of the three consecutive losses that preceded the current four game winning streak, Capuano's coaching tendencies became a focal point.  So much so that #IslesTwitter seemed to care about nothing else.  The coach's habitual use of the 4th line after a goal (either for or against), his ice-time delegation and personnel choices were all placed squarely in the crosshairs.  The loss to San Jose was a well-played effort, the details of which were ignored by fans with pitchforks and torches heading down Hempstead Turnpike.  Luckily for Coach Cappy, he was 3,000 miles away.

Personally, I focused on his use of the "fourth" line.  Full of fan favorites Casey Cizikas, Matt Martin and Colin McDonald, that group has provided plenty of energy in recent seasons.  McDonald was regularly used in years prior but was scratched often this season and finally waived following that other losing streak (all of two games in late October). Other guys like Eric Boulton and Mike Halmo also got their extended share of ice time in seasons past.  However, as we fans pointed out ad nauseum on Twitter during the losses two weeks ago, "energy" doesn't equal competitive hockey.  To me, it sure seemed Capuano was deathly afraid of the dreaded "momentum swing".  Whether it was a goal for ("let's keep this energy up!") or a goal against ("Let's get some energy back!"), those guys were his crutches.  It's not hard to understand why.  Without the roster depth to sustain (or swing) momentum using secondary scoring, Capuano used what he could.  And to the credit of those players, they are good at what they do.  However, on a truly deep NHL team what they do isn't really needed for more than a handful of minutes a night.  The other forward groups can take on the full responsibility of scoring and - in the case of the prototypical "third" line - defending the opposition's top players.  The Islander teams of recent years (even the playoff team in the lockout-shortened 2012-2013 season) were - and this won't shock anyone to hear - not deep teams.  Hence the reliance on those guys by their long-time coach.

This year's squad is deep.  The deepest one in many years.  For some reason, Capuano couldn't (or wouldn't) learn that he could lean on secondary scoring and depth to push the team.  When he wanted to nudge, out went those guys.  After the loss in Denver, it started to dawn on me that maybe he just wasn't going to adjust his player usage, no matter how loud everyone around him was screaming about how terrible it was.  Cizikas had been given more minutes than Nikolay Kulemin.  Both Martin and Cory Conacher - who hasn't been very good since the first week of the season - both played over 12 minutes each.  Brian Strait was still a thing that happened for over 16 minutes.  He had become our Lloyd Christmas trying to triple stamp the TOI chart with no backsies.

The loss in San Jose showed signs of a change in attitude, but I wasn't confident the adjustments would stick since the team lost anyway.  Then the team announced that Cizikas was being scratched for the Anaheim game and things got interesting.  We already know how that game went and even though Cizikas returned the next game (with Conacher sitting), the "fourth" line - Cizikas, Martin, Boulton - all played well under 10 minutes.  While the winning result wasn't achieved purely on the reduced ice time of those forwards, it continued the nice trend.  In the Arizona game, Cizikas played a little over 10 minutes (due to his PK duties).  Martin and Boulton again played well under that magic 10-minute number.  Which leads us to the best game of the young season, the home game against the Avs.  Boulton was scratched again and while Cizikas, Martin and Conacher all played their 10 minutes, some of that was actually enhanced by score effects.

"Here's a little nugget for you guys, some late PP time in a blowout."

Had it been a closer game, chances are good that Capuano would've given those guys much less time.  I think Capuano has changed his ways and stopped leaning on the "energy" guys.  I don't know what brought on this positive change since there was ample evidence indicating he would continue to be quite stubborn about when and who he gave shifts to.  Without another explanation, I'll just call it:

At the beginning of the year, many fans were focused on how the players would adjust (and hopefully grow) with a deeper roster.  How far this team would go was reliant on players - young and old - learning and becoming better NHL players as a group.  What came to light for me was just how much growing Jack Capuano needed to do.  I myself didn't even think of how important that was going to be.  In the course of two weeks, I saw a maturation of Capuano The Coach that has become as big a factor of this team's success as the players scoring and saving pucks.  Chalk it up on the list of good things to happen so far in this transformative season and another reason that confidence is up.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Minority Report

The West Coast Trip Of Death began as it has for the last billion years: with the stench of fear dripping from fans' discussions of the upcoming games.  The home loss to the struggling Winnipeg Jets along with the spectre of the road trip had intensified the wave of pessimism to Roland Emmerich levels.  Once the Islanders went to San Jose and lost to the Sharks after being trounced by a suspect Colorado team, it confirmed everyone's fears and send the Islander fanverse over the edge.  With a three day break leading to the upcoming back-to-back against powerhouses Anaheim and LA, negativity festered quickly.

"Everything is wrong and this entire thing is a tire fire."

If I had placed a big bet at the start of the season on Islander fans wishing - no, craving - for the return of Josh Bailey to fix the team, I'd now be first in line to buy the Carolina Hurricanes.  Everyone had forgotten about all the moves GM Garth Snow made during the offseason and were again screaming for a top-line left wing to play with captain John Tavares and Kyle Okposo.  The head coach's hair gel was better at setting lines than he'd ever be and the team should just start conceding power play goals immediately so that they had more time to play terribly in the neutral zone at even strength.

According to internet Islander fans in the days following the San Jose loss, the following things needed to happen or all hope was lost:

Things The Islanders Must Take Away
  1. Jack Capuano
  2. Greg Cronin's Penalty Kill
  3. Cory Conacher
  4. Casey Cizikas, Matt Martin and Brian Strait
Things The Islanders Must Add
  1. Anything Not Jack Capuano
  2. Anything Not Greg Cronin's Penalty Kill
  3. Anything Not Cory Conacher
  4. Anything Not Casey Cizikas, Matt Martin or Brian Strait
As a fan trying to remain optimistic in the face of such a familiar situation, I retreated into posts written by authors/fans who share a similar level of (admittedly shaky) sanity.  Rob McGowan over at The Checking Line, garik at Islanders Analytics and Dan (with Dominik) at Lighthouse Hockey all made sure to do their best to rein in the growing despair.  As is my mission this year, I tried to stay positive.

"Even if they lose the next 2, It's going to be OK."

The first part of that statement makes believing the second part pretty difficult.  However, the reality was that losing to the Ducks and Kings and finishing the West Coast Trip Of Death with a 7-7 record - which would include defeating a shaky but capable Arizona team - would keep the Islanders in the thick of the division (if not still a bit ahead).  Their good start had provided some cushion.  Granted, this has happened in seasons past, but the trend has to break some time, right?  This team's PDO of winning in November is about 12, so the regression towards 1000 has to start some time. (Of the 4 people who will ever read this, only 0.5 of you will laugh at that).

So resigned to the fate of the team was I that I didn't plan on watching either game.  Staying up until 1:30am just to see them lose was not high on my Fun Things list.  Then the news broke that Anaheim was going to play the game with out top players Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry (along with starting a backup goalie).  All of a sudden, I thought things might go alright for the Islanders.

And they started out pretty good.  John Tavares and Kyle Okposo both scored to put the team up two goals.  Jaroslav Halak was playing much better in net.  If I had to sum up the day from that morning up until that point, it was all like...

Until the Ducks did all their Duck stuff and crawled back into the game with two goals of their own.  As any Islander fan would've predicted, neither goal was really all that pretty.  Travis Hamonic broke his stick while killing a penalty.  Considering the state of the Islanders' PK unit, that's like putting a 3-legged dog on roller skates and asking it to play fetch.  Then right before the second period ended, Anaheim followed through on a crazy broken play in which every Islander tried to clear the puck, only to have it land in from of Emerson Etem, who just spun around and fired it past a screened and confused Halak.  Fluke plays and bad bounces should have a commemorative shoulder patch on Islander jerseys.  Suddenly, the kids were not alright.

In what was almost the most Islander-y Islander way of giving up a go-ahead goal, Hamonic slid into Halak in a failed attempt to do something resembling NHL defending and nearly put a rolling puck into his own net.  The ref motioned that it was a goal.  Hamonic was all like:

The goal was disallowed by the omnipotent folks in Toronto and us Islander fans took another swig of the half-empty bottle of alcohol we'd opened halfway through the 2nd.  #IslesTwitter - which is a rabbit hole every fan should visit once in their lives just for the sheer spectacle - was a mess.  Three days of festering pessimism and rage coupled with giving up a two-goal lead to a weakened opponent was fuelling Mt. St. Helens-level vitriol.  The game - and what was left of fans' sanity - was hanging by a thread.  For me, however, I chose to focus on how this year's team has shown that it's a new era.  I no longer expect third period collapses.  I let the optimism flow as the clock ticked down.  They made it to OT and were gifted power play by the fickle hockey gods (sometimes known as Tim Peel).  Then John Tavares did what John Tavares do.  And I went to bed exhausted and happy.

With the win last night, the Isles will be at worst 7-7 when they fly home.  Which I'd already accepted as good enough.  Even after so much losing it's still hard for most fans to accept mediocrity.  Up until this year, I probably wouldn't accept it either.  However, I've quickly learned there's a big difference in accepting a loss because the team simply isn't good enough and accepting a loss because you feel they are good enough to come back from it.  I'm still in the minority so far in learning that distinction.

Most of us saw that Arizona game and checked it off as a game they would need to win after a terrible California trip.  It is now a game that merely should win.  Maybe if they follow through on that it will help bring some fans over to the optimistic side.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Looking ahead, then back, then ahead again

The Islanders followed up their first loss of the season with their worst loss.  It was a game that reminded us long-time fans of the good 'ol days...of last season.  At home against an (arguably) inferior team and the Isles were completely outplayed.  With it being October and the Isles losing two bad games in a row, many fans did what they'd normally do: declare the season a bust and...

Understand that Islanders fans have reason to react so drastically.  Nick Costonika of Yahoo wrote a nice article on this final season at Nassau Coliseum that also pointed out a recent trend of the team that I (and others) know all too well - that the Islanders can't seem to win in November and December.  These two losses felt all too familiar and quickly sent the Islander fanbase into emergency cynicism mode.

I was among the mob.  The Pavlovian reaction was unavoidable.  With their next game on the road against a struggling but very good Boston Bruins team, the scenario was familiar.  The Isles would lose a tough one in Boston and then face Dallas, a tough Western Conference team, at home leading to a four game losing streak and erasing their perfect 4-0 start.

At least, that's how it's always played out.  It's been such a consistent occurrence that I looked at the schedule after the Dallas game to try and see where they would be able to make up the points.  However, the team went to Boston and squeaked out a win that I'm sure took a year off my life.  I wouldn't say I was back to full optimism when the Dallas game started, but knowing that the Stars played the night before (and went to a shootout) helped me muster some happy thoughts.  Then the circus arrived.  The game was so 1980s that I'm pretty sure Butch Goring - color analyst for the Islanders TV broadcast - called the game in between taking his second line shift deployments from Al Arbour.  The game ended with The Benevolent Frans Nielsen scoring a 3rd period hat trick and the Islanders winning their second game in a row.

Instead of worrying about the Isles trying to beat a bad Winnipeg Jets team in order to salvage points before heading out on their yearly death march (also known as the west coast trip), here I was looking at them atop the division.

A win against the Jets at home would give the team plenty of cushion in the standings to withstand the tough games in California.  And while a weekday (i.e. non-sellout) game against an awful opponent is a telltale trap game for the Islanders, this new-look team has proven the pessimistic version of me wrong twice already.  I was pretty confident they'd be 7-2 when boarding the plane for Colorado.  Let's Go Islan...

So about that west coast trip being no big deal...

Monday, October 20, 2014

Barbarians At The Gate

I set a goal to post once a week.  This space isn't meant to provide updates on a day-by-day or game-by-game basis.  There are plenty of good sites for that.  This blog is more about my personal experiences as I root for (what I feel will be) the best team the New York Islanders have fielded in over a decade.

What became apparent since last Tuesday's (sweet) victory over the New York Rangers, was that this team will have an unprecedented ability to toy with my emotions, even over the course of only a week.  This is not insignificant, mind you, because for the last 20 years toying with my emotions seemed to be a conscious pastime of anyone in an Islander uniform.  So how did this team surpass all those other miserably masochistic squads of years past so quickly?  By giving me one of the best October games I've seen in a while followed by a game so terrible, I'm pretty sure I saw Kirk Muller pouting in the corner, refusing to take his next shift.

Had I written this post Friday or Saturday (before the Game-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named), it would've gone something like this:

"They're playing a good Sharks team, were down a goal going into the 3rd and took the lead?"

"They had to go to overtime and a shootout, but the Islanders have John Tavares so..."

"And it was sellout-crowd loud, even without the sellout part."

Inevitably the post would sign off with something about puppies & rainbows and where to drop off my first-born because I'm going to have a debt to repay.  The Islanders were undefeated and just beat one of the more consistently good regular season teams (who were also undefeated).  The reactions were (once again) causing my refresh button to burst into flames.  My younger brother (a Ranger fan - maybe I'll explain that one day), was moved enough to text me a simple question, "This is happening this year, isn't it?"

Oh yeah.  I think it is.

I was so elated that two days later, I kinda enjoyed standing around a 6-year old's birthday party with my son's friends.  As all parents know, those things are painfully, excruciatingly boring.  Any parent who says otherwise is on Xanex.  You have to listen to other parents put their best Facebook faces on.  You have to deflect your kid's requests for soda without sounding pretentious.  Rules about finishing your meal before getting desert get treated like Middle East cease fires.  However, there I was, smiling and talking to other humans like happy people do.  The other party parents thank you, Jaroslav Halak.

After the party, however, came the game against the Pittsburgh Penguins.  I've said this to my brother and other Ranger fans before - I think I might hate the Penguins and their fans a bit more than the Rangers.  I know, I know.  That's sacrilege coming from an Isles fan.  But at the core of it all, Ranger fans have dealt with their fair share of heartache and discontent.  Granted they usually have a good enough team to make the playoffs and provide some exciting moments, but they also lose plenty.  Losing in the playoffs hurts.  More so when expectations are high, something the Rangers have had (off and on) for the last decade or more.  So there's some sympathy there.

The Penguins have an entire swath of fans who have only seen the new glory days.  Fans who had no emotional investment in the terrible teams of the early 2000s.  Fans such as that bring a sense of entitlement to the otherwise fun fan-on-fan ribbing.  I realize that Penguins fans are not alone.  Perennially great teams in any sport have their fair share of bandwagoners.  Maybe in a few years, when the Penguins roster is comprised of a mid-30s Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin's sewn-together prosthetic body, the corpse of Marc-Andre Fleury and a bunch of B-level prospects born from a decade of terrible draft positioning, I'll stop feeling this way about them.  Until then, I'll have to deal with it.

So when the Isles rolled into Pittsburgh Saturday night as the big, bad unbeaten team, I was in full fan-troll deflector gear.  Armed with years of experience and the NHL standings taped to my shield.  After the Isles scored first and were given a 5-3 power play (for nearly a minute and a half), I was ready to fire away on the army of Pens fans.  Then...they broke a sacred hockey god rule.

They failed to score on a long 5-on-3 power play and then gave the opposing team their own 5-on-3.  I'd have to look up the percentages, but I think historically the team who successfully defends a two-man disadvantage followed by getting their own 2-man advantage has scored roughly 711% of the time.  Of course, the Penguins did score (twice, naturally) and the rest is history.  Ugly, ugly history.  The Islanders played an awful game.  The analytics (of which I'm doing my best to learn and use) said it wasn't a really awful game, but optically it was a tire fire.  There was little flow to the Islanders possessions and when they weren't making bad passes forward, they were dropping worse ones behind them.  Before the game, whomever is in charge of advanced stats for the team must've given the players a lesson in carry-in numbers because every player decided he was going to try to skate in with the puck, regardless of how many Penguin players were waiting at the blue line.  By the 3rd period, I was wondering if the NHL had added a rule outlawing dump-ins.  Garik16, who is a great advanced stats guy to follow for Islander fans, kind of noticed too:

It was infuriating. It was also a lot like many other games I've sat through over that last few seasons.  For a little while after the end of the game, it felt just like all those Islander losses of the past.  Hope was tarnished.  Reality seeping in.  Knocking at the gates of Fort Hope were the barbarians of worry.  Armed with catapults of fear and battering rams of anxiety.  And yes, it was so bad that my brain was only able to speak in middle-ages analogies.

But by the morning, I was better.  Because this team, I keep telling myself, is different.  Every team has bad games.  Hell, the Chicago Blackhawks just lost to Calgary in a game the Flames had nooooooooo business being in (take note of the shot totals).  So, it happens.  The difference is good teams bounce back and this will be the Islander's first chance to show that they can do that.  Their next game is against a maddeningly inconsistent (just ask their fans) Toronto Maple Leafs team at home.  They have a good chance to win and right the ship (even if it was only slightly skewed off course by the loss).  I had returned to a warm cocoon of optimism by Sunday breakfast.  Such is the difference so far between this team and those of the past.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Clicking The Refresh Button

Like most Islanders fans this year, I portrayed some pretty high confidence before the first game of the season.  Hope was high and worry was non-existent.  There were some injuries to the defensive group, but thanks to GM Garth Snow's trades a week earlier, the team still had a good top-4 to start.  Plus, the Isles were not only playing a team that had their own mountain of injury issues, but one that most analysts didn't think was going to be that good anyway.  In previous seasons, most of us would've been happy with two or three points in the standings.  Not this year.  Nothing less than all four points should be expected.

Once I realized what I was expecting instead of what I was hoping, my Islander-fan psyche began to twist - just as it has in previous seasons.  As all fans know, it's much worse dealing with losses when your favorite team is expected to win.  Isles fans have dealt with that even though they weren't expected to win many games.  While it's rough fending off the trolls when these losses would happen, our internal realist always knew that such an outcome was very possible.  We would deal with it and move on.

But this time, I'm all in.  If this year's Islanders are truly...truly...a contending team then they win these two games.  Nothing less is acceptable.  Nor should it be excused.  They must win both.

"And if they don't?"

The opening game was on the road on Friday.  I was set to attend the Islanders' home opener on Saturday.  I wanted it to be memorable for many reasons.  I'm not sure the team being 0-1 after the first game would've made it any less memorable, but I really didn't want to find out.  The Islanders had their issues during that opening game in Raleigh, but they never trailed and displayed many more positives than negatives.  I smiled, knowing that I would be able to arrive at the gloriously loud and decrepit Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum for one last opener and enjoy some happy (and hopeful) tailgating before the team played again.

And I did.  It was a fantastic day.  We ate and drank and played games in the parking lot.  We beeped our horns and chanted.  We apparently made the players notice.  New defenseman Johnny Boychuk said the crowd outside woke him up at 10am.  When the game finally started, it was loud.  As loud as I've ever heard, including Game 6 of the 2002 playoffs against the Toronto Maple Leafs (which is the best sporting event I've ever been to).  Chad Johnson, the new backup goalie, also noticed the noise.  Then John Tavares scored the first goal.  The arena shook.  I high-fived everyone I was within arms reach of.  I'm pretty sure the dude in front of me had a baby.  It was amazing.  Even though the team had some issues throughout the game again (I don't want to talk about the penalty-killing), they held on and finished off the Hurricanes on back-to-back nights.

Just like they should have.  My brain was all like...

The group of friends I was with went home and sat together in mostly silence.  It was probably the hours of tailgating, beer, food, cheering, beer, hugging and beer that did it.  I choose to think it was also a bit of guarded optimism.  That quiet feeling when no one wants to speak in fear of ruining it.  But, it was mostly (probably) the beer.

Getting back to work the next Tuesday after a fun day off with the family, the anticipation for the next game grew quickly.  Their third game was against the Rangers and they were much better than Carolina.  Plus...they were the Rangers.  Not only would losing to them put the brakes on all the giddiness, but it would spawn the Ranger fan trolls like a wet mogwai.

"This, " I thought, "could suck."

For two periods, it totally sucked.  The only reason the Islanders even had a chance to win was new goaltender Jaroslav Halak.  He was brilliant in the second period and once the third period started, the Islanders forwards woke up and scored in bunches.  I exhaled, took a sip from my frothy beverage and immediately went to every hockey web site I could find and furiously refreshed all pages to see what people were saying about my team.  I must've checked the Twitter feed roughly 3,419 times.  I wanted to see what everyone was saying about the new Eastern Conference powerhouse.  There was praise and adoration.  There were posts telling other teams to "watch out" and posts riddled with confused "who are these guys in the Islanders uniforms?" statements.  I couldn't get enough.

Because I deserved it.  Us Isles fans deserved it.  If only for a few moments at the start of a promising season.  Once my "Are you not entertained?" episode ended, I realized again why this team is different.  Their new goalie actually did what everyone hoped he would do.  He stole a game.  Granted, there were times even last year where the Islander goalie played over his head and was the main reason the team won.  However, those games were rare.  Very rare.  This time, it happened in the third game of the year.  It happened during the prototypical, "Oh you think this team is going to be good, huh?" game that the Isles seem to dump on us fans each and every year.  I have little doubt that in previous years, the Islanders lose that game.  Because in 19 of the last 20 season starts...they have.

But not this season.  Not yet anyway.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

How Does This Work?

There aren't enough blogs about the New York Islanders.

OK.  Not true.  Maybe there's just not enough blogs about the New York Islanders written by a lifelong fan who is trying to come to grips with actually having real expectations and optimism for the future of the franchise.

Islander fans are an odd breed.  This isn't surprising to most hockey fans simply because one can't be a fan of a perennially bad team and not have a few screws loose.  It's the age-old question of, "Why would you subject yourself to this every year?"  We never truly have an answer for that.  But whatever the reply is, it usually includes something about loyalty sprinkled with nostalgia.

It's been a little while since my older brother and I woke up my parents celebrating David Volek's OT goal in 1993 ("You will have no dynasty, Mario!").  Before that it was talking about the Easter Epic surrounded by dyed eggs and piles of food at my grandmother's house with a dozen family members.  Cheering for the Islanders was fun, exciting and good for pumping up your own private self esteem.

After that 1993 team bowed out to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Montreal Canadiens, the Isles returned to the playoffs the next season (barely) and had to face the New York Rangers in the first round.  I then watched my favorite team get crushed (goals scored in the 4-game series: 22-3) by their biggest rivals (who went on to end a long and well-chanted-at championship drought).  It seemed to be the worst it could possibly get.  Then the next 20 years happened and well...

There was Kirk Muller and the Gang Of Four.  Mike Milbury and John Spano.  Fisherman jerseys and asbestos.  Neil Smith and making the backup goalie the GM.  Bad signings and worse trades.  It was Dante's Inferno wrapped in Groundhog Day.

So why am I still here?  Watching this team every game?


I mean, it's not that life-sustaining, culture-shifting type of hope that wins Oscars when someone makes a movie about it.  It's simply the hope that the team will make me cheer again.  Because I like cheering for something that I've invested years of time into.  Something that is responsible for happy memories with friends and family.  Sports are grounded in hope and Islanders fans have lived on it - sometimes only on it - for the better part of two decades.

However, the ruse is that us Islanders fans have become accustomed to just hanging on to hope while waiting around for the inevitable disappointment.  Does it count as hope if the person feels that failure is always the result?  Probably not.  I've limited the scope of my optimism to the short term.

"Maybe they can do well these next few games."

"Maybe they'll find a way to win this one game."

"Maybe this power play will score."

Hope for one week or one game does not really equate to being hopeful for the team because I expected that in the end, they'll be among the also-rans.  Granted, this team has provided a few bright spots along the way.  They made the playoffs each year from 2002-2004 and again in 2007.  The 2001-02 team was my only real "They have a chance" feeling over the last 20 years.  I wasn't sure what to do with myself then and I find myself on the precipice of that feeling again.

Only this time, it's compounded by the feeling that this team could be good for a while.

And I have no idea how to handle any of this.

There's a few reasons why I've started this blog.  I like stories.  I'm capable of writing a complete sentence (sometimes).  I feel like the common fan's voice has become uncommon.  There's many more people like me out there than fans like those on the Internet.  However, the flashpoint was this past weekend's trades.  I walked around and couldn't shake the feeling that, "This is one of those days that people look back on in a few years and say, 'That was the day they finally stopped rebuilding and started contending'."  Good sports teams always have that day.  It's part of the blueprint.  Honestly, it should've happened last offseason, but for unknown (but heavily speculated) reasons it didn't.  Then the hope that grew out of their first playoff appearance in 7 seasons quickly faded back into discouragement.

Are Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy the next coming of Morrow and Potvin?  Well, no.  They aren't even top-pair level defenseman.  They are very good NHL blueliners but, more importantly, they've filled in the gaps.  I don't mean the tactical gaps or the gaps in talent.  I mean those gaps in hope that fans of bad teams always have floating in the back of their heads.  Gaps that are always there, albeit small, at the start of each season.  Gaps that seem to only grow and never shrink.  And now they're completely gone.

And I have no idea how to handle any of this.