Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Suck it, Tom Petty

Fans of the New York Islanders are fragile.  We have yet to fully shed our cocoon of worry even though this year's team has remained one of the most consistent in the league.  Well, at least they were up until the loss to the Rangers.  That game marked the start of their worst stretch of the year.  A stretch that resulted in a record of 1-6-1 over the next eight games.  Luckily, the team was able to win a wild back-and-forth game against the Detroit Red Wings and avoid finishing the month of March on a serious downer.

Let's reset for a second.  The Islanders are still one of the more consistent teams in the league.  As I wrote previously, this was the frustrating part to the losing streak.  Even though the wins weren't there, the team played some very good hockey.  The Isles had their share of issues - you don't lose that often without some things going wrong - but the biggest factor in the outcomes of the games was usually the opposing goalie.  After running into Andrew Hammond and Carey Price (and playing terribly in Chicago) they were Dubnyk'd (Minnesota), Quick'd (Los Angeles) and (surprisingly) Andersen'd (Anaheim) over three straight games.  The Islanders had plenty of opportunities and carried play for long stretches in each of those games.  Prior to the game against the Anaheim Ducks, Michael Willhoft wrote a nice post over at Lighthouse Hockey that hopefully gave some much needed perspective to all the cracking Isles fans.  I know it helped me.

When they were finally able to break their scoring slump and win a game, the sigh of relief from the fanbase was palpable.  Obviously, getting back in the win column was paramount, but the Red Wings game also marked a break in the schedule.  The Islanders had played a high number of games until this current three day respite.  Whenever I looked at the standings I would enjoy the Isles' place amonst the top teams and the optimism would swell accordingly.  Then I'd notice the games played column and all those warm and fuzzies would be taken away from me.

I had long ago surrendered the division title to those annoying New York Rangers because they had played roughly 328 less games than the Isles at any given point in the season.  Accepting this allowed me to build the required apathy to counter any Ranger fan preening as the season wound down.  It also eliminated some of the excitement for the final five games.  Sure, there's still home ice advantage - which I've been pining for all year.  But as Brian Erni wrote on Islanders Point Blank, having the extra home game is really nice, but not a huge factor.  The penultimate game against the Pittsburgh Penguins should be real fun, but other than that we've been reduced to hoping no one important gets injured before the playoffs.

Choosing not to worry too much over being the higher seed and the team a virtual lock to make the postseason, it really leaves us fans with nothing to do but wait.

The irony of the situation is that we Isles fans are used to sitting around at the end of the season, twiddling our thumbs and watching the team play out the string.  Difference is we've usually been waiting for the draft lottery.  Interestingly, I've gravitated towards the many annual draft lottery articles (and tanking debates).  Reading about percentages and draft order scenarios feels like home.

But we've moved to some new digs.  So now what?  Instead of worrying about which ping pong ball comes out first, I'm worrying about John Tavares going too hard to the net or Jaroslav Halak stretching too far to make that extra save against the lowly Buffalo Sabres this coming Saturday.  I need to wear loose pants while watching Nick Leddy carry the puck through the neutral zone, but that thrill will be gone right quick if I see him being lined up for a hip-check by an opposing defender.  I will instead assume the hope-and-pray position on my floor.

Maybe I need a personal scratch.  Not unlike the veterans on the team being giving a game (or two...or three) off by head coach Jack Capuano.  My sanity might need to go a couple of games without turning on the TV.  I'm not sure spending all game wincing at each bodycheck thrown on an Islander player is healthy for me.

After all that's happened this year, through all the ups and downs (mostly ups) and cheering and jeering, it seems the waiting really is the hardest part.  Damn you, Tom Petty.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015


The tune-up game against the rival New York Rangers didn't go well for the Islanders.  The game itself was an exciting, playoff-style affair that cost me some bragging rights and fingernails.  What no one realized at the time was it was a harbinger for things to come in the two games that followed.

The main obstacle to victory for the Isles against the Rangers was goaltender Cam Talbot, who is in the midst of one of those amazing backup goalie winning streaks that make the hockey media swoon.  He deserves all that praise as he's carried the Rangers to a ridiculous 13-2-3 record in the 18 games since the start of February.  While there was plenty for Isles fans to hold on to - the team out-shot and out-played the Rangers for decent stretches of time - the result was absolute.  So was the reaction of giddy Ranger fans.  Even though the Isles were still in first place following the game, the Rangers had closed the gap to a single point and had more than enough games in hand.  The inevitability of the Rangers overtaking the Isles was palpable within both fanbases.  The Isles have cruised the fast lane all year but the Rangers had suddenly come screaming up behind them, tailgating and flashing their lights like a Hamptons EDM club.

Unfortunately, that inevitability came to fruition later that week as the Rangers continued to win games with their goaltending and defense.  The Islanders in turn continued to lose tough games in which the team played really well but were victims of a stellar opposing goalie.  It was a sad version of Ranger Game Groundhog Day.

In the next game against the Ottawa Senators, the Isles ran into Andrew Hammond.  Andrew Hammond is rewriting NHL record books right now.  The next day, they played the Montreal Canadiens and Carey Price, who is not only a lock for the Vezina Trophy as this year's best goalie but may also win the Hart Trophy as league MVP - something only 6 goalies have ever done.

It was the most frustrating way to watch the team lose.  They played pretty well and just didn't get the bounces required to win.  That's never the best side of a fan debate to take as you basically have to argue the existence of voodoo, wizardry and bullshit (copyright @Steve_Dangle - My condolences to Leafs fans as I know your pain).  A number of team blogs and beat writers did their best to ease the panicking fanbase.  Unsurprisingly, it didn't help to change the attitude.  I myself have been fighting the urge to freak out.  My dueling optimistic and pessimistic sides have basically rendered me catatonic like a deer in headlights.  I hoped by remaining silent it would all go away and go back to the way things were.  Then the team went to Chicago to play the Blackhawks.

Turns out those headlights were attached to a Mack truck.  The Isles looked worse than any of the previous three losses, getting run all over the ice by a great team playing a great game.  The fact that starting goalie Jaroslav Halak didn't travel with the team due to a minor injury added a metric ton of TNT to an already super-heated volcano of pessimism.

The Islanders left the Windy City with their first four-game losing streak of the season.  Granted it's mid-March, so that's a vast improvement over previous years.  Also, while the Rangers are steamrolling the conference, the other teams in the East have floated alongside the Isles in mediocrity.  Personally, I use this fact as my main focus when the worry-monster rears it's familiar head.

"It could really be much, much worse."

It's also been a bit of a revolving door to the trainer's room for the team.  Every team in the NHL deals with nagging injuries this late in the season and the Isles are no different.  Luckily most of the injuries seem to be minor (with the exception of Mikael Grabovski), but the effects are noticable.  Top winger Kyle Okposo returned from his eye injury but has looked to be a step slow.  Top defenseman Nick Leddy has missed every game of the losing streak, which is not a coincidence.  Head coach Jack Capuano is also sitting players for "maintenance days".  I understand the logic since even with the recent struggles, the Isles are going to make the playoffs.  Making sure guys don't make any of the usual nagging injuries worse is admirable.  But it also fuels the rage of fans who just want the losing streak to end as they watch an inferior lineup start every game.

Who knows, though.  Maybe it's best to follow the lead of the coaches and look at the big picture.  The Isles have lost first place in the division and with the new playoff format flip-flopping between second and third in the division is strictly about home-ice advantage.  The Pittsburgh Penguins are struggling just as much and only have one game in hand so the Isles are still in the driver's seat for that.  Over all, it would take quite a collapse for the Islanders to miss the playoffs so there's lots to be positive about.

But man, it's a tough perspective to have.  Especially when the headlights are so bright in your eyes.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Boss Fight

It feels silly to need any more validation of this New York Islanders season.  The Isles have been one of the best and most consistent teams since the opening puck drop of the first game.  Even as we fans have bitten our nails and furrowed our brows through the team's post-All Star break injury issues, they have stayed atop the division.  However, even though they kept that lead in the Metropolitan, the Islanders have watched as the rival New York Rangers have crept up behind them in the standings.  The Rangers supplanted the Pittsburgh Penguins as the second place team trying to knock the Isles from their perch by winning 12 of their last 19 games.  A number of NHL power rankings have moved the Rangers ahead of the Islanders.  Some put the Rangers at the top of the league.

Thing is, I can't really argue.  Other than to light up the douche train, of course.  The Isles have scratched and clawed their way to their consistency in recent weeks, winning tough games and losing a couple of bad ones.  The Rangers just keep winning.  Even more amazing is that they've done it without their all-world goalie Henrik Lundqvist.  It's been remarkable, exciting and really, really, really annoying.  Annoying not only because they're the friggin' Rangers, but because they have one of the highest team SPSv% (PDO) in the NHL.  For the uninitiated, head over here for an explanation (skip down to the SPSv% [PDO] section).  When a team like the Rangers is showing an SPSv% of 101.6 it assumes they are riding a hot shooting streak or hot goaltender (or both).  As they are the enemy, I like any stat that indicates they may be due for some bad luck.  Problem is those values guarantee nothing.  While plenty of teams with a high SPSv% did actually regress down and hit the predicted bad luck streak, some didn't.  Most notable are the 2010-11 Boston Bruins and the 2012-13 Chicago Blackhawks.  Both ended the year with a SPSv% above 102 and went on to win the Stanley Cup.  (Note: I understand that the 2012-13 season was only 48 games, but I think the point still applies.)  While the numbers show they are due to slow down, it's no sure thing the Rangers do.

Which really, really sucks.

Why? Of course there's the obvious reason, but objectively it's because the Islanders finally have a favorable schedule as they conclude the season.  Starting this Friday, they have 13 games remaining.  Eight of those are at home.  There are only two remaining back-to-back sets of games.  There's a few tough opponents, but half of those are Western teams.  From the East, the Isles will play Montreal, Detroit and Pittsburgh with the Penguins being the only road game of those three.  As chaotic as the Isles' February schedule was, their March/April one gives them the respite they were working so hard to reach.

The only thing in the way of a hopefully calm and collected final 13 games are those annoying New York Rangers.

A mid-March regular season game between two teams already close to locks for playoff berths isn't the usual recipe for a "game-of-the-year".  They're usually a "don't injure our guys and we won't injure yours" love-fest.  But it's Islanders versus Rangers.  Both teams are elite squads.  The latter has been chasing the former all year.  The former has beaten the latter in three of four previous games.  The one game the Rangers did win was a classic comeback that was shaping up to be another victory for the Islanders.  All these things have fed the hype machine and it's primed to spit out a nauseating amount of hot takes from the hockey media..

The Isles have navigated this gauntlet of a season as well as any team in the league.  They've stayed poised through the highs and lows, even as the fanbase was screaming about the sky falling. Injuries to key guys have not had the devastating consequences some may have feared they would.  They've come this far and the end is in sight.

Even though the Isles have lead the Rangers in the standings all year and have already won the season series, in my head the Rangers are still the heavyweight.  They've got arguably the best goalie in the world.  They've been to the playoffs and had deep runs regularly over the last decade.  It makes me shiver to bring it up again, but they did wind up in the Stanley Cup Final last year.  So while this next game may not be a Game 7, it's the Super Macho Man bout that leads up to four rounds of Mike Tyson-level battles in the post-season.

Keeping the Rangers a few points back would do wonders for my sanity.  Not unlike having a few power-ups in hand before walking through those big scary castle doors.  The best games are the ones that force you to keep your skills sharp.  Playing a playoff-level game in mid-March isn't a bad thing unless there's an injury to a key player.  The more high-intensity situations the team can experience, the better in my opinion.  If the Islanders do eventually lose their top spot in the division, they have time to respawn and make their way back.

Or they could do what they've done a few times this season and just beat the Rangers and extend their cushion like my sanity is begging them to do.  They've surprised me a number of times already.

What's one more?