Special Teams Prowess Was Bound To Fall Off; 5-On-5 The Key

By B.D. Gallof, WFAN.com

Let the fear and loathing on Long Island begin. That said, though, don’t let it consume you.

Just last Thursday Islanders fans were flying high following an overtime win over the Devils that seemed to point to a new direction, one that would lead to a different ending. Two games later, the 4-2-1 start seems like a lifetime, or at least a season, ago.

The first seven games were almost a special time to be an Islanders fan. Maybe the quick start meant something far more to many. Was the river of loss and disappointment suddenly changing direction? Was the heart of the rebuild finally beating loudly? Didn’t it seem like a radical turnaround was in the offing?

But I warned you.

Yes, I did. I said there was no way the Islanders’ special teams would continue producing at a historic rate. Sooner or later the power play and penalty kill would come back to earth. The only problem is, most everyone didn’t expect the bottom to fall out of both in just two games. I mean, 0-for-14 with the man advantage?

You will read many takes on the Islanders’ hot start but then their immediate struggles against top teams. The Devils adjusted to the Islanders’ speed and special teams prowess on Sunday. The Penguins had gotten themselves together following the beating they received from the Isles last week in Pittsburgh. Their performance Tuesday night reminded me of what the Bruins did to the Isles to start the season. The Penguins showed why they are the better team, outplaying the Isles in a manner in which we knew they were capable.

If you have been following me on Twitter or read my last piece, you saw how I’d written of indicators of change and an uptick in what the Islanders could potentially be. What we saw from this team over the first seven games was far from the radical pivot that all fans were hoping for in the long run. Flaws never do go away. Insane percentage rates on the power play and penalty kill do not remain. The truth is, teams have been scouting and adjusting to the Islanders very quickly.

This season’s potential success will not rest on special teams. Sure, prowess a man up and down will help, but, as we’ve seen over the last two games, they cannot be the sole horse the Islanders ride into town on.

Where the Islanders will eventually end up will be dictated by 5-on-5 play, something that wasn’t scintillating even during the fast start. As the hype grew, some people began to forget that, yes, this team is capable of stringing together wins, but it is also capable of stringing together losses.

I can guarantee you the Islanders coaching staff and brain trust is not shocked by anything that’s transpired thus far.

If John Tavares is kept off the scoreboard, as he was in the last two games, then it is more than likely the Islanders will lose. The biggest question that will follow this team around the rest of the way revolves around whether or not the Isles can get consistent scoring from three lines, not one.  Another question mark is the defense. Will it becoming something close to impenetrable or will it continue to spring leaks, as we’ve seen several times already?

The good news is the problems are not hidden in the shadows or hard to put a finger on. You know what they are. The Islanders know what they are.

They need more scoring from players not named Tavares. They need a top flight defenseman capable of feeding the puck and unleashing a blistering shot from the point on the power play. Lubomir Visnovsky, now having completed his time overseas, could be that guy, for as much as Mark Streit can be a complete defenseman, he doesn’t do it anywhere near consistently enough. If Visnovsky arrives and starts producing, he could literally help kill many birds with one stone.

Thomas Hickey may be the odd man out when Visnovsky is ready to play. Coaches tend to trust the veteran, in this case Matt Carkner, than to go with the rookie. But as I hear it, even when forward Josh Bailey is ready to return and the roster needs an adjustment, it is doubtful Hickey will be sent down.

As for the coaching staff, Jack Capuano has said all the right things, even in the face of the two bad losses the Islanders are coming off of heading into Thursday night’s tilt with the equally inconsistent Rangers. Simply put, the Isles must get second- and third-line scoring, especially when their star player is stifled or struggling. The power play must also adjust. But all of this has to happen despite what appears to be a lack of confidence from all involved.

The Islanders had a swagger over the first seven games, but it was quickly erased and forgotten when teams made adjustments. They are young, impressionable, and have a lot of work to do and a ways to go before being one of the top teams in their division, let alone the conference and the NHL. They have glaring needs, flaws, and will need to learn and grow from the losses as much as the wins. Expect more of the same for the time being, a few wins followed by a few losses, indicators of a team working out the kinks and still with work to do across the board.

This team is not a winner yet. It needs to continue learning how to win and how to bottle positive performances for consumption at later dates. The Islanders are currently a .500 team that needs to somehow finish north of break-even to make the playoffs, at a minimum. This target is doable as long as they keep progressing and avoid any prolonged losing streaks.

If you thought anything else after the hot start you got suckered a bit. There was hype and excitement from announcers, opposing pundits, writers and fans. There were certainly items to discuss, point out and tout, but also there should have been just as much to scrutinize and keep an eye on.

And that, I think, was the real thing that polluted the fans, that sense of inevitable desire for victory over the forces of what has piled on the base for years — that the kids and rebuild pieces’ energy would simply prevail.

The Islanders initially had all the momentum and the fans were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave, but now those sane fans look up at the banners in Nassau Coliseum and have a moment of pause, whispering to themselves something about being teased. But the truth is you are not being teased. You just need to have patience. Anyone thinking rebuilds simply have to work due to the passage of time are fooling themselves.

It’s all wait and see. Remember that.

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

Do you think the Islanders will end up better than .500 and make the playoffs, or will a more common reality once again show its face? Please offer your thoughts in the comments section below …


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