Defense, Penalty Kill Struggle In Debuts, Goaltenders Have Their Moments

By Daniel Friedman

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On Tuesday night, the New York Islanders played two split-squad games against the Calgary Flames and lost both.

The scores don’t matter much. That’s not what preseason is about. What is important is the little things, the players who show they want it more and the ones who give the fans an idea just how much they’ve improved. It’s about seeing progress, as well as the elimination of lingering issues.

Since the start of training camp, we’ve learned a lot about this team. We’ll learn even more in the days and weeks to come, leading up to the 2013-14 regular season opener.

In Calgary, Alberta, and Regina, Saskatchewan, the Islanders put that which they’ve worked on in camp to the test. Overall, there was a lot to like, though there were definitely things that need improvement.

On a side note: It was heartwarming to see hockey being played in Calgary and in the Scotiabank Saddledome after the severe flooding that occurred there a few months ago.

John Tavares, Matt Moulson and Pierre-Marc Bouchard were buzzing all game long and there was a lot of chatter during the intermission reports on Calgary’s Sportsnet 960 about the dizzying display of passing by that line.

I have already stated for the record that this trio could be even better than it was with P.A. Parenteau. On Tuesday night, they certainly showed they’re capable of being just that.

The top line in Regina did their job, but the one in Calgary did not. Frans Nielsen, Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey have been playing together since the start of training camp. They did not look good at Barclays Center, Iceworks or the Coliseum. I didn’t expect that to change much at the Saddledome, nor was I surprised when it didn’t.

Also encouraging was the fact that New York’s power play, now quarterbacked by Lubomir Visnovsky, had a strong debut. Tavares and Moulson scored and Visnovsky notched an assist.

Ryan Strome had a glorious scoring chance, right on the doorstep, but was robbed by Flames goaltender Karri Ramo. He’s been the best skater in Group B for the entire duration of training camp and, to me, absolutely looks like an NHL-caliber hockey player.

In Calgary, Michael Grabner wired a wrist shot into the top-left corner of the net, after streaking into the Flames’ zone. He’s serious about shooting and finishing more often, and that’s been apparent throughout training camp.

Cal Clutterbuck looked like, well, Cal Clutterbuck in his first game as an Islander, and that’s a good sign. He was the recipient of a perfectly-timed hip check but, other than that, he basically hit anything that moved and was effective.

Clutterbuck did leave the game after taking a skate to the thigh, and was scheduled to fly back to Long Island on Wednesday. Unless he pulled something as he went down, I don’t see him missing time.

It was hard not to be impressed with Matt Donovan on Tuesday night. He appeared to be quite comfortable dishing the puck around at the blue line and was rewarded for his efforts with an assist. Calvin de Haan did a nice job joining the rush as well.

As for some of the other younger defensemen; Griffin Reinhart scored a goal, which was a definite plus, but he had trouble in the defensive zone. As Sportsnet 960‘s Pat Steinberg observed: “I was more impressed with him offensively. He looked a little lost in his own end a number of times.”

Steinberg liked what he saw from first-round pick Ryan Pulock as well, observing that “he was poised and confident for an 18-year-old.” I felt the same way, more or less.

I thought Kevin Poulin had a good night, all things considered (and there were plenty). It didn’t always look pretty but the guy did his job.

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He showed some flashes of brilliance and it’s worth noting that he repelled one Flames power play by himself, at a time when the Isles’ penalty kill was fast asleep. There were a couple of pucks that rang off the posts behind him but those were good shots.

The bigger concern, at least for me, was Poulin’s decision-making in terms of handling the puck. He had a few blatant giveaways, each of which nearly cost the Islanders a goal. To Poulin’s credit, he did manage to get back into the crease and stop the ensuing scoring chances. Perhaps that was enough in a split-squad match, but he won’t be able to get away with that during the regular season.

It’s not uncommon to see a younger netminder make those types of mistakes, but the key for Poulin is obviously to eliminate them as he continues to work on his game.

Poulin gave up his first goal on a rebound to Lance Bouma, who was peacefully camped out to the left of the crease. Poulin couldn’t slide across the goal line in time to make the stop and, honestly, I’m having trouble thinking of a goaltender that could have done so. The second goal changed direction off Reinhart’s skate, so you really can’t fault Poulin on that one either.

I had a chance to speak with Poulin a couple of days ago. He said he’s ready to prove himself, and I believe him. That’s the right attitude, but Poulin certainly has his work cut out for him.

Enter Anders Nilsson, who is technically “competing” with Poulin for the backup position. That job, however, is clearly Poulin’s to lose.

Not that Nilsson is helping his case. He looked a bit rusty during the first few days of training camp, though he is coming off an illness-plagued season, so that was to be expected. Nilsson was a bit shaky from the outset Tuesday night, even though he, too, received little assistance from his defensemen.

Generally, a goalie should not be to blame for giving up a 5-on-3 power play goal, but the one allowed on Tuesday had nothing to do with the Islanders being at a two-man disadvantage.

It was a simple wrist shot from Dennis Wideman at the blue line. Granted, there was a bit of traffic around the net, but Nilsson was able to see the shot because he was in the right position. He simply whiffed. That’s a shot he has to stop, regardless of how many skaters are on the ice for each side.

As for the fourth Flames’ tally, T.J. Galiardi was left wide-open and had the puck on his stick for about a decade or so before calmly putting it into the net. To say that Nilsson had no chance whatsoever would be a gigantic understatement.

That goal came on the power play as well, but even a semi-competent group of penalty killers could’ve prevented it from occurring. It didn’t even look like a power play goal; it looked like poor execution by the Islanders in their own zone and that’s exactly what it was.

Quite frankly, that was an issue the entire night, regardless of whether they were down a man, on the power play or at even strength.

New York went with Evgeni Nabokov and Kenny Reiter for the Regina game. Each gave up a pair of goals in the 4-2 loss. Nabokov did make some big saves, including a left-pad stop on Sven Baertschi on a 2-on-1.

It’s up to Nabokov to quiet the naysayers, who’ve seemingly grown in number since the playoffs. He’s been sharp in training camp. I’m not worried about him, provided he can get some more rest over the course of the season.

Shifting back over to training camp, I’ve been really impressed with former Boston College goaltender Parker Milner. He’s obviously quite some time away from even entering the conversation, but I felt he was better than Kenny Reiter during the on-ice drills. Look for Milner to begin climbing that depth chart.

There are about two weeks until the regular season begins. It’s more than enough time to work out the kinks, but it goes by awfully quick. If the Islanders are in fact hell-bent on building off of last season, they have to keep pace.

Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter @DFriedmanWFAN

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