For those of you keeping score at home, the New York Islanders have gone 3-6-0 since The Hockey News identified them as “New York’s New Giants.” Yes, the THN curse, real or imagined, is alive and well.
Or perhaps it was just a matter of overshooting the expectations on this group. The Islanders are young and talented, to be sure, and their trip to the playoffs last spring was supposed to be a portent of greater things to come. They play in a bad division of a bad conference and a lot of us thought they would be much, much better than this. In a textbook case of taking one step forward and one back, the Islanders beat the Detroit Red Wings in a shootout three days ago, only to fall 5-2 to the Toronto Maple Leafs Tuesday night.
Islanders captain John Tavares is quick to point out that the Islanders still have 60 games to work things out, but 12th place in the Eastern Conference isn’t exactly what they envisioned a quarter of the way into the season.
“There’s a lot of time to get to where we want to be, but in saying that, yeah we haven’t played the way we want to play on a consistent basis,” Tavares said. “There’s still a lot for us to prove. Just making the playoffs one year isn’t going to crown you as being one of the top teams in the league. We have a lot to prove still and we’re still a growing team and we need to find our game on a consistent level.”
Bingo. The Islanders have yet, this season at least, to display any sort of consistency. It seems every good effort is followed by a bad one and every bad one is followed by a worse one. The Islanders have won two straight games just once this season, but have strung consecutive losses three times, with the most recent being a four-game skid in which they were outscored 16-6 and were knocked out of the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference.
Without Lubomir Visnovsky, Radek Martinek and Brian Strait, the Islanders are something of a mess in their own zone. Their goaltending has been erratic, leading to constant speculation about a trade for the likes of Ryan Miller or Jonas Hiller. Thomas Vanek, who cost the Islanders two draft picks and Matt Moulson, played just six games before getting hurt, but is expected back Friday night when the Islanders visit the Pittsburgh Penguins. (Should the Islanders be out of it by the deadline, expect them to flip Vanek to get that first-rounder back.)
But everyone deals with injuries. The way Tavares sees it, the Islanders are not making enough of a commitment to going to the areas of the ice that are uncomfortable.
“We need to be better in a lot of the gritty areas, things that top teams do,” Tavares said, “and we don’t do that enough.”
A case in point was the loss to the Leafs. The Islanders outshot Toronto 37-24 – nothing strange about that, the Leafs get outshot by everyone by a large margin and are a Corsi nightmare – but didn’t generate nearly as many dangerous chances as the Leafs did. And the Leafs were far more opportunistic, taking advantage of the huge gaps left to them by a group of inexperienced defensemen. Phil Kessel, in case the Islanders haven’t been checking the tapes, is not a player to whom you should give a lot of room. If a defenseman gets in his face, chances are he’s going to fire a shot from the periphery. Allow him to walk in unmolested and he’s going to make you pay.
“Their gaps were bad and they didn’t move the puck,” Islanders coach Jack Capuano said of his defense corps. “You can make anyone look good if you give them time and space.”
The good news is that despite their struggles, the Islanders find themselves just one point out of a playoff spot in the Metropolitan Division. And as Tavares said, there are still 60 games to go. But if the Islanders fail in their quest to make the post-season again, they may very well look back at the first quarter of the season as the time when they blew a golden opportunity.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN’s other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Ken on Twitter at @THNKenCampbell.