Islanders

Gallof: Islanders Made Noticeable Improvements Over Their First 2 Games

Saturday's Loss Had Preseason Look, But Monday's Win Came In Stark Contrast
Islanders winger Matt Martin scores against the Tampa Bay Lightning on January 21. (credit: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Islanders winger Matt Martin scores against the Tampa Bay Lightning on January 21. (credit: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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By B.D. Gallof, WFAN.com

UNIONDALE, N.Y. (WFAN) — After just two games, if you think you know what the New York Islanders are, think again. As bad as Saturday night made you feel, this team looked a lot better Monday. The fact remains, it’s silly to have high expectations out of the gate when the entire league is operating on a week of preseason.

Just ask the Stanley Cup favorites, the 0-2 New York Rangers.

All that said, let’s break down the good and the bad from the Islanders’ opening two games:

Saturday, 2-1 loss to visiting New Jersey:

Right off the bat it became apparent to me that recent pickup Brian Strait did not look out of place on defense. That’s not to say the unit played well despite the score. If you watched the game you know veteran goaltender Evgeni Nabokov kept the Islanders alive a lot longer than they should have been.

This team needs Lubomir Visnovsky, or a steady operator like Radek Martinek, sooner rather than later. The waiver wire-bolstered defense looked out of sorts with giveaways and bad passing, and often skated a full step behind the Devils.

As far as the offense went, the first period lacked sustained pressure, though John Tavares certainly looked game ready.

The line of Michael Grabner, Frans Nielsen and Brad Boyes did some good things, especially Boyes, who made several nice moves, and positionally was in the right places. Grabner’s accuracy has been an issue, which is a shame because he is so good at getting in all alone against the goalie. However, this could be a line that takes a lot of the scoring pressure off the Tavares line, a key need for this team this season.

Defenseman Travis Hamonic looked improved at both ends of the ice, as his goal illustrated. Hamonic and Andy McDonald are key figures that need to bring something more than last season for this defense to be more than just a patchwork operation.

Matt Carkner, brought in to lead with toughness and protect other players, seems to need a bit more time to get up to speed. He isn’t alone, as the game, expectedly since all teams had little time to prepare, was sloppy.

In the locker room, Hamonic said he felt the Isles came out “flat,” However, during the coach’s press conference, Doug Weight, who was subbing for Jack Capuano due to the head coach’s bout with kidney stones, denied that flat was a term he would use.

“The energy was there. They were excited and possibly trying to do too much. I wouldn’t agree with flat,” said Weight, who is always at ease talking to the press.

Timo Seppa, the managing editor of Hockey Prospectus and contributor to ESPN Insider, remarked to me on our way out that Weight looked like he wanted to keep chatting along. I agreed. Weight loves to talk, and loves an opportunity to describe the team vision to which he, Garth Snow, the coaches and the internal hockey operations are all committed.

Seppa and I have been debating the merits and pitfalls of not having Ryan Strome on the NHL roster, with the Islanders instead sending their first round pick from two years ago back to juniors. We also wondered why in the world Casey Cizikas was sitting in a press box instead of playing in the opener, while journeyman waiver pickup Keith Aucoin got his minutes and more. It was a worthwhile observation to which I will give you the Islanders’ standing philosophy this season:

This team will do its due diligence on waiver wire pickups, meaning the Aucoins, Straits and Joe Finleys of the world will get every opportunity to show whether or not they can make the type of impacts that Grabner and Matt Moulson made after they were salvaged from the scrap heap many moons ago. This will especially be the case with Jesse Joensuu and Josh Bailey due to return soon, factors that will force the Isles to make room. Will they send someone down who is on a two-way contract like Colin MacDonald or Cizikas, or will they expose one of their pickups back to waivers?

It’s survival of the fittest Islanders style, which is also why Martinek sat as both the massive Finley and deft Strait got playing time. Thomas Hickey, who also sat, will eventually require more of a longer look, where the Isles can rate him as more than just a depth piece. He is felt to have potential to be a second- or third-pairing regular.

Doug Weight being informed of Travis Hamonic's description of the team coming out flat. (credit: B.D. Gallof)

Doug Weight being informed of Travis Hamonic’s description of the team coming out flat. (credit: B.D. Gallof)

All in all, the opener was an incomplete vision of what the Islanders will be this season. Too many things and personnel were missing. However, be that as it may, the Devils and Isles will meet five more times, and Capuano’s bunch will need to put it together fast because the compressed schedule is unforgiving and will separate very quickly the true competitors from those still in transition.

Though there was an attempt made to add second line center Scott Gomez, it seemed as of Saturday that the Isles were out of the running. And, much to my Twitter followers’ chagrin, I announced that Alexei Yashin visited the locker room area after the game. However, those worried about his possible return, a source told me later what we see on the ice is likely what we will get, unless other teams use the waiver wire or panic to make deals over the next few weeks.

What is clear is that the Isles would like to improve by adding a center to run the second line, moving Nielsen to run the third. However, finding the right player might take a lot longer than many would hope.

Monday, 4-3 win over visiting Tampa Bay:

The Isles seemed to do everything right for about 45 minutes, building an impressive four-goal lead. However, the demons of the past returned, giving everyone at Nassau Coliseum and monitoring the game on television heart palpitations.

Prior to the three-goal chasm that developed in the third period, the defense played a lot better than it did Saturday. However, Finley struggled much like he did in the opener. He doesn’t use his size and strength with enough moxy. Finley dropped the gloves one second in to help set a tone, but ended up playing just 7:59 more. Carkner got 12 minutes. Strait again got more of a look, logging 17 minutes.

See the theme I referred to before?

Strait and Hickey might fill out this team’s fifth and sixth blueline spots, with Carkner as the seventh depending on the opponent and the need for his toughness. Finley is rapidly losing momentum in my mind, and needs to bring the boom while keeping pace with his legs. His skating has not translated so far, nor have his decisions.

Meanwhile, on offense the Islanders were a lot better, cranking out 44 shots, their most since the 2010-11 opener against Dallas. What’s more important is the Islanders did not go into a shell defensively once they allowed their lead to get cut in half. They generated the same amount of pressure offensively as they did the previous two periods, a very good sign.

Grabner buzzed the net all afternoon. He also scored on the power play, finishing a partial breakaway, a problem he had repeatedly last season. With two extra-man markers in two games, the Isles seem to be right where they want to be heading forward on special teams.

David Ullstrom made the most of his nine minutes, scoring once and forcing Tampa goalie Anders Lindback to make several big saves. Tavares has yet to score, but had two assists. Moulson had one on Kyle Okposo’s goal. Okposo looked more relentless and grinding than he did in the opener.

Cizikas played just five minutes, and we can extrapolate a few things from it. Either he is on the bubble, and being eased into things, or is likely on the slow train back to Bridgeport once Joensuu or Bailey returns.

Many fans would like to see Marty Reasoner waived or scratched, and Cizikas in his place on the fourth line. However, that’s likely not going to happen after just two games. But do keep in mind the fact that diminutive yet talented Aucoin has already made a difference and will gain minutes, putting both Cizikas and Reasoner on notice.

Game 3, Thursday at Toronto:

Looking at the results of the first two games, please keep in mind the competition. The Devils made it to the Stanley Cup finals last season, and though they are sort of in transition without Zach Parise, they are still a very talented club that likely will be right there in the Eastern Conference once all is said and done. The Lightning are loaded offensively, but looked like they were asleep for much of Monday’s tilt. I’d be very surprised if Tampa isn’t also a factor going forward.

The Islanders basically did a fairly good job against two of the better clubs in the conference, the type of momentum they’ll need on this upcoming five-game road trip that will take them to Toronto, Boston, Winnipeg, Pittsburgh and New Jersey.

The Maple Leafs are another team hungry to get back into the playoff conversation, but they are now also in full-rebuild mode. Former GM Brian Burke failed in his attempt at a quasi-rebuild, shipping off younger talents for more “win now” players, and that led to his firing the second the lockout ended.

While I won’t go so far as to say the Islanders “should” beat the Leafs, they certainly should feel very disappointed if they don’t. Thursday’s tilt will be another measuring stick for the Isles, who are in much the same boat as the Leafs, but could be in better shape personnel-wise.

Read more columns by B.D. Gallof and follow him on Twitter at @BDGallof

What’s your assessment of the Islanders’ start? Please offer your thoughts in the comments section below …