By Mike Carver
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Winning on the road is obviously a key to success in the NHL. And for the first two months of the season, the Islanders had no idea how to do it. Losses in their first seven road games (most in embarrassing fashion) put them in another early hole that they are still trying to dig their way out of. But over the last seven road games, the Islanders have turned their season around.
The Isles are 5-1-1 in their last seven road face-offs, including wins in tough buildings such as Dallas, Buffalo and New Jersey. Most impressive might have been the current two-game road swing that just ended. They went into Minnesota last Saturday and won 2-1 in a shootout over what at the time was the top team in the NHL, and then finished it off last night in Winnipeg with another shootout victory, 3-2 over the Jets. They are still eight points and six teams away from a playoff spot, have no power play and are tied for last in the NHL in goals scored, but there is plenty to be happy about on the road.
Defense Grinding It Out
Leading the way over the trip in my eyes was the defense. After some brutal home games against Pittsburgh and Dallas, the defense has stepped up its efforts. They are blocking shots, playing smart in their own zone, killing penalties and occasionally getting involved on offense. Despite losing one-goal leads in both games, the defense did not crumble as it has in the past. Earlier in the season, giving up the game-tying goal would spiral into the game-winning one, but on this trip, the D held the fort, got to overtime and gave the team a chance to win in the shootout. This unit looked old and slow a few weeks back, but the return of Andy MacDonald has been huge; Travis Hamonic has been a beast; Dylan Reese has played well since his call up and even Mike Mottau has looked like an NHL defenseman at times. If these guys can translate their recent road success to home ice, the Islanders can get a little something going by grinding out more low-scoring wins.
Keep riding Montoya…if you can
It also helps when you have stability at the goaltending position. Al Montoya has now started 11 of the last 13 games for the Isles and was sensational in Minnesota after a much-needed rest against Dallas at home. He continues to provide solid play and one could only think what the Islanders’ record could be if he started more than once between the middle of October and Thanksgiving weekend. My guess is they’d be less than the eight points out of the playoffs they are now. But the stability could be ending. Montoya left last night’s game just before the end of the second period after getting smashed in the head by the Jets’ Evander Kane. Hopefully Montoya will be good to go Thursday night against the Rangers, but with the way concussions have swept through the NHL this season, I’d lean toward Evgeni Nabokov at the Garden. If it’s time for Nabokov to carry the ball for a while, he better step up and show the Islanders he can.
Frans Nielsen … Shootout Master
Quick, who has the best shootout percentage in NHL history with a minimum of 10 attempts?
I could probably give most very good NHL fans five guesses and none could come up with the Islanders’ Frans Nielsen. Nielsen sealed both Islander road victories in Minnesota and Winnipeg with shootout goals to improve to 18-for-31 in his NHL career, which is good for 58.1 percent. The shootout is a gimmick, which people either love or hate. I personally like the skills contest. Is it the best way to determine a winner? Probably not, but its better than a tie, and teams can use it to their advantage. With a weapon like Nielsen, if I were the Islanders, I’d maybe start trying to play for the shootout like some other teams in the metropolitan area.
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