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.