By Daniel Friedman
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Heading into Tuesday night’s contest in Sunrise, Fla., there was every reason to expect that the New York Islanders would pick up their fifth consecutive victory and eighth straight road win.
But they handed — literally handed — the Panthers three first-period goals and basically napped through half the game. It didn’t have much to do with Travis Hamonic being out of the lineup. Rather, it was a bevy of idiotic individual decisions by other defensemen that did the Islanders in.
Florida won 4-2, despite some outstanding goaltending from Kevin Poulin and a late push by the Isles’ offense.
“It’s self-inflicted,” head coach Jack Capuano said. “It’s tough to give up those kind of goals when the puck is on your stick and you have the time to make a play.”
From that point on, if you’re a skeptical and frustrated fan of this franchise, the writing appeared to be on the wall. Logic suggested the Islanders would struggle Thursday night at Tampa Bay because the Lightning, after all, have been practically invincible in their own building this season. Capuano’s bunch would then get waxed in both ends of a home-and-home set with the Flyers, who’ve seemingly had the Islanders’ number since Apple first introduced the iPhone.
But the Islanders rebounded from their lackluster effort against the Panthers with a come-from-behind 2-1 shootout win over the Lightning. So, in other words, one can’t predict with any certainty what will happen Saturday night in Philadelphia and then Monday back on Long Island. The Isles are weird like that.
With impressive wins over the Rangers, Red Wings, Bruins, Blackhawks, Maple Leafs, Avalanche and Lightning in the last month, the Islanders have proven they can beat anyone. They’ve won 10 of their last 14 to keep themselves in the conversation in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
But as we know, the Islanders can also lose to anyone, especially in their own building, though I believe they are trending more toward being a nuisance with a puncher’s chance than a pretender with a glass jaw.
What made Thursday night’s win even more impressive was the fact that they did so in light of the news that Hamonic was sent back to New York for further testing on his upper body injury and Ryan Strome was shipped to Bridgeport.
The Islanders fell behind in the first period, something they’ve made a frustrating habit of doing lately. A wide-open Martin St. Louis capped off a dizzying series of passes on the man-advantage. As Isles’ radio color man Julian Coltre observed, all five Lightning skaters touched the puck before the goal was scored.
The Isles struck back with a power play tally of their own in the middle stanza. Frans Nielsen, who has five points in his last six games, set Thomas Vanek up perfectly in front of the net and hulking Tampa goalie Ben Bishop, who can cover a lot of ice with ease, had no chance.
Poulin kept the Isles in it all night, making 29 saves and stopping all three shooters in the shootout. Nielsen recorded the only score in the skills competition and the Islanders regained the momentum they had lost 48 hours earlier.
“Kevin was solid,” Capuano remarked. “He really controlled his rebounds. He was really poised back there and he made some timely saves. This is an opportunity for Kevin and hopefully he’ll keep playing the way he’s been playing for us.”
Regarding Vanek, he now has 17 goals, including 13 with the Islanders. The 29-year-old winger also has 32 points in 33 games since being acquired from Buffalo for Matt Moulson, a 2014 first round pick and a 2015 second round pick.
It’s easy to tell how much he enjoys playing for the Islanders. He’s quite comfortable being on the same line with John Tavares (I mean, who wouldn’t be?), has two very good buddies in Michael Grabner and Kyle Okposo and it’s clear to me he’s bought into what the Isles are trying to do here.
If owner Charles Wang ponies up the dough, there’s a very good chance Vanek will be playing in Uniondale and Brooklyn for the next six to eight years. It’s no longer a question of whether or not he’d have any interest in being an Islander.
GIVE CREDIT WHERE IT’S DUE
To me, the most impressive thing is that Tavares hasn’t had to completely carry the Isles on his back the way he did last season. There have been several other contributors, like Vanek, Okposo, Nielsen, Poulin, Strome (more on those two in a moment), Brock Nelson, Grabner and Calvin de Haan.
It would also be unfair of me to not give Capuano any credit. I might not think he’s the right coach for the Islanders down the road, but as I’ve maintained all along, his system does work very well for this team when executed correctly. They’re playing the right brand of hockey in the offensive zone and that’s why they’re filling the back of the net.
The other thing I’ve liked about Capuano’s recent approach is that he’s been level-headed despite the team’s recent success.
“There’s been some good, there’s been some bad,” he said. “We’ve gotta start on time. Certain guys have to pick up their game.”
Certain guys have, starting with Poulin, who’s 5-1 with a 2.23 goals-against average and .918 save percentage since taking over for the recently injured Evgeni Nabokov. He’s been superb, while fans continue to clamor for the latest backup goaltender who either gets traded or beats the Islanders.
I was in the BB&T Center press box on Tuesday night. Everyone was impressed with Poulin’s effort despite the four goals he surrendered.
If you only judge a netminder, especially one who’s 23 years old, by the amount and types of goals he surrenders, while completely ignoring the talent and potential he shows or the caliber of the defensemen in front of him, you’ll find that there are very few who meet your criteria for what defines a good goalie.
“The more you play, the more you feel comfortable,” Poulin said. “Give me that confidence to be the guy every night, and it’s great when you have that confidence.”
He’s referring to the coaching staff, but the same could be applied to the fans as well.
DE HAAN IS THE REAL DEAL
Another player who’s been getting a lot of attention (and justifiably so) is de Haan, who’s probably been the Islanders’ best defenseman since being called up to the big club. He did need some time in Bridgeport, mainly because of the fact that he was going through a lengthy recovery from a serious injury.
Now that he’s manning an NHL blue line, he’s been able to show just why GM Garth Snow traded up to select him in the 2009 draft. When I asked him about it, he told me that it was all a matter of becoming more comfortable at this level.
“I’m just playing with a little more confidence,” de Haan said. “My feet are wet and I feel good out there.”
We can certainly tell, Calvin.
SENDING STROME DOWN WAS SILLY
Speaking of players shuttling between the Islanders and Sound Tigers, Strome was sent down so that he’d be able to play in the AHL during the Olympic break. My take? Right idea, wrong time.
Whether it was Peter Regin or Colin McDonald, someone else could’ve been sent to Bridgeport in the meantime (someone had to be, because Radek Martinek was coming off IR). There’s also the fact that Strome was able to play in seven more games before reaching the limit of 15, at which point he could’ve then joined the Sound Tigers for the 18-day Sochi hiatus.
Taking Strome off the roster means you’re not icing your best possible lineup and, given the Isles’ current situation, they need to be putting their absolute best foot forward. He had more of an impact than you might’ve thought.
LOOKING AHEAD — WAS THE HOLE TOO DEEP?
It’s quite remarkable how the Islanders have awoken from their slumber here. They’ve won eight of 10 and are now seven points out of a playoff spot which, considering where they were before, is a tremendous accomplishment.
Every loss is going to be magnified now, but the Isles’ real mistake was losing 14 of 16 during that horrendous November swoon. Even if they’d gone .500 in that stretch, they’d be in the playoff picture right now. But they dug themselves a hole that might be too deep to get out of this season.
Regardless, the main thing is that the Islanders have something to build off of, that they’re still trending upward. It’s starting to look more and more like November was the fluke, rather than last season’s playoff appearance.
Maybe they’ll make it; most likely they won’t. But no matter what happens, they’ve gotta keep climbing. It will pay off tremendously in the long run.
Follow Dan on Twitter at @DFriedmanOnNYI
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