By Daniel Friedman
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On Wednesday, New York’s Islanders and Rangers will be at Yankee Stadium to partake in what has become the NHL’s modern marvel — the outdoor hockey game.
For several Blueshirts, this will be the third they’ve played over the last three years (2012 Winter Classic and both Stadium Series games). For the Isles, there’s only one player on the roster who’s been on the outdoor stage, and that’s Thomas Vanek. His Buffalo Sabres took on the Pittsburgh Penguins at Ralph Wilson Stadium back on New Year’s Day in 2008.
“I remember the one in Buffalo was pretty special with the snow coming down,” said Vanek. “I’m sure (this game) is gonna be fun, the one in Buffalo was a blast.”
Fun is something Vanek and the Islanders haven’t had a whole lot of recently. They’ve lost three games in a row, one of which ended in highly-controversial fashion — after Vanek scored an overtime-winning goal against the St. Louis Blues, only to have it overturned by the NHL’s “War Room” in Toronto.
But, if there’s anything that brings out the best in these Isles, it’s a game against the Rangers. Their last win was at Madison Square Garden and, after squaring off against the Blueshirts at Yankee Stadium, they’ll return to MSG on Friday night for yet another tilt.
“I think our guys know the importance, obviously, of the stretch we have before the Olympic break and how big of a game it is tomorrow against the Rangers, a divisional opponent,” said Islanders head coach Jack Capuano. “To be honest, I think for us — the way it’s been going over the last couple games — it’s giving us a little bit of life. I think this game and this atmosphere could spark us a little bit.”
John Tavares echoed that same sentiment after practice.
“It’s an exciting thing, you could feel the energy in practice,” he said. “It’s a big game. Our games with the Rangers are always unpredictable and playing in this environment — I’m sure it’s gonna get everyone fired up to play.”
Despite all the hype surrounding this game, Capuano has remained levelheaded.
“For me, we have to approach this the way we approach any other game,” he said. “It’s still 200 (by) 85. We still have to play the game. So I’m not too concerned about any distractions with our hockey club. Just making sure we go about our preparation tomorrow like we do in any other game. I think when we get out there tomorrow night it will be all business.”
As if the game itself weren’t enough of a story, there’s been plenty of news coming from the Islanders’ camp.
Lubomir Visnovsky and Evgeni Nabokov were both back in the lineup on Monday night and, though it wasn’t part of the original plan, both received playing time — the latter taking over for Kevin Poulin, who didn’t have a particularly strong outing. The kid is talented but is certainly not prepared to be a starting goaltender at the NHL level right now.
It’s a system of checks and balances. Nabokov and Poulin need each other in order to be successful.
Poulin needs Nabokov as a mentor and as someone who can shoulder more of the load, but Nabokov needs Poulin to step up whenever he needs a breather. The two can work well in a tandem and only in a tandem.
There’s also the ongoing Travis Hamonic saga, and though his absence has been slightly alleviated by the return of Visnovsky and the emergence of Calvin de Haan, the Islanders clearly miss him. His return date is anyone’s guess right now.
But perhaps the biggest development that occurred on Monday evening was that Capuano broke up the NHL’s hottest line, separating Kyle Okposo from Tavares and Vanek. I understand why he did it but respectfully disagree with that decision — especially when considering that he opted to go with Cal Clutterbuck in what had been Okposo’s spot on Tavares’ wing.
I’m interested to see whether or not he sticks with that same lineup over the next few game, but if he’s going to, there’s a better way to spread out the offense than the way he did against Boston. Whether it’s Brock Nelson or Josh Bailey, someone else should be alongside Tavares and Vanek.
There’s no reason it has to be Clutterbuck, who’s a good hockey player in his own right but is just more suited for a different role.
Most people would say the Islanders, who are currently seven points out of a wild-card spot, have little to no chance of making the playoffs. But don’t tell that to Tavares.
“Over the last six or seven weeks, we’ve played much better hockey and made things much more interesting for ourselves, but I think our whole division’s played a lot better,” he said. “So it’s been tough to make up ground that way, but we’re still right there. Things can turn in being able to put some wins together, especially against divisional opponents — you’re gonna put yourself in an opportunity for a spot.”
The Isles will certainly have their chances to do so, as they face their division in 10 of their remaining 27 matches. They also have a pretty favorable schedule going forward, with plenty of winnable games against teams like Edmonton, Calgary, Buffalo and Florida.
“There’s still a lot of hockey left to be played,” Tavares added. We know we’ve gotta play a lot better than we have and a lot more consistent than we even had over that period of time. But we know that window is still there for us.”
On Wednesday, the Islanders are going to play a game that will be forever ingrained in their memories.
It’s going to be cold, but it’s going to be a lot of fun. It’s also going to be absolutely crucial for Capuano’s bunch to channel as much energy from this frozen phenomenon as they can toward saving their season, because the clock is ticking.
Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter @DFriedmanOnNYI.
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