By Mike Carver
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A week ago the Islanders season was pretty much finished.
Coming off an embarrassing 6-0 loss at home to the Boston Bruins, the Islanders got thrown to the wolves on national TV in the Sidney Crosby homecoming special and put together an equally embarrassing 5-0 defeat. It seemed like the team had not scored a goal in weeks, the goaltenders were dropping like flies, and it looked like they just flat out did not want to play. Not to mention they were about to enjoy their holiday weekend with the Flyers and a home and home with the Devils before hitting the road (a place they still had not won) to Buffalo, Chicago, and Dallas. They were already over 10 points out of a playoff spot and there was nothing this team was showing you that made you think they had anything left. I thought they were cooked.
I was wrong.
A point against the Flyers, showing some effort in a 1-0 loss to the Devils Friday, and winning their first road game in Newark on Saturday all led up to the Islanders best 60 minute game in a long time, a 2-1 victory in Buffalo last night.
What has changed in a week?
When the Islanders came home from a miserable road trip on 11/15 coach Jack Capuano wanted to send a message to his players and most specifically, Kyle Okposo. Okposo had a miserable start to the season looking like a shell of his old self with no goals and no fire on the ice. After sitting for 3 games, Okposo has come back focused. 2 goals and an assist in the overtime loss to the Flyers brought back the Okposo of old. He has been skating hard, finishing checks, taking shots and playing with a purpose. He has also opened the ice back up for Michael Grabner, as his chances have increased significantly since Okposo’s return from the press box.
Some Needed Roster Shuffling
First, the Islanders had to unload some dead weight. After scoring 24 goals for the Isles last year, Blake Comeau was waived after the Flyers game. Comeau had been brutal for the Islanders this season, was wasting a spot on the 3rd line and was worth exactly what the Islanders got for him…nothing. Jay Pandolfo and Mark Eaton, 2 of the elder statesman on the club will both be out over a month with injuries. You never like to see guys get hurt, but it helped add some young energy to the club.
Enter David Ullstrom, Micheal Haley, and Nino Niederreiter. Ullstrom has been outstanding and really taking advantage of his shot. He is a very smart, quick player and has added some spark to Josh Bailey and Brian Rolston the last few games. Haley came in and did exactly what he does best, maximize the little ice time he gets by flying around, getting into fights, and aggravating the other team. He should have been here since opening night. Niederreiter actually did not play any of the games over the weekend, but returned last night in Buffalo to the Islander fans’ delight. No one knows why he had not been playing considering the team’s need for goal scoring, but with Pandolfo now out he will get his chance long term. Giving Marty Reasoner a few games off to think about how poor his play has been hopefully will spark him just like Okposo.
The Goalie Shuffle is Over
The debate on who should be the Islanders starting goaltender is finished. Al Montoya returned from a hamstring injury last Friday and has given the Islanders 3 tremendous performances in net. He gave them a chance to win in a 1-0 loss to the Devils. Then he came back the next day and made huge saves down the stretch to preserve a 3-2 Islanders win in Newark. But last night in Buffalo he did exactly what number one goaltenders do. He stole the Islanders 2 points including single handedly shutting down on a Buffalo 5 on 3 power play late in the 3rd period. For whatever reason it seems the team has more confidence playing in front of him. The numbers do not lie either. The Islanders are 4-3-1 when Montoya starts and 3-7-3 when the other guys have. His wave percentage and goals against rank in the top 10 in the NHL. And even if Evgeni Nabokov was not hurt, or Rick DiPietro was not giving up garbage goals that cost the Islanders games in November, the choice would still be clear. Montoya is the Islanders best chance at getting back in the playoff race.
The Islanders still have a problem scoring goals on a more consistent basis, but it’s great to see them play some solid hockey over the past week. They got great goaltending and some energy from new faces and old ones.
And who knows…they went from 12 points out of a playoff spot to 8 out in just a week…
I know, I need to see more too…Let’s just be happy they are showing signs of life for now.
3 Stars of the Week
3rd Star – David Ullstrom – Ullstrom picked up his first NHL point on Brian Rolston’s game winner last night in Buffalo. Bonus points for making Islander fans notice Rolston and Josh Bailey on the ice again.
2nd Star – Michael Grabner – Grabner got off to a slow start but has really picked up his play lately. He only scored on one of what seemed like 10 breakaways in the last week, but it gave the Islanders a win over the Devils last Saturday.
1st Star – Al Montoya – 3 goals allowed in 3 starts leading the Islanders to 2 big road wins with plenty of highlight reel saves along the way. What would the Islanders record be if they stuck with Montoya from game 1??