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.