By Daniel Friedman
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Going into this week, the New York Islanders were already facing a substantial amount of adversity. That, however, would pale in comparison to what they’d have to deal with from that point on.
Lubomir Visnovsky left Saturday night’s game against the Carolina Hurricanes with a concussion. He was placed on injured reserve, retroactive to October 19th, which means the earliest he can return is next Tuesday. Just 48 hours later, Michael Grabner received a two-game suspension for his head shot on Carolina’s Nathan Gerbe.
Fans were quick to criticize Brendan Shanahan and the NHL’s Department of Player Safety, but the punishment fit the crime. Grabner stuck out his elbow prior to hitting Gerbe and it was a clear violation of Rule 48. The league clearly recognized that Grabner was not typically a “dirty” player and that there was no injury as a result of the hit, because they only barred him from two games. It’s the shortest suspension they’ve dolled out this season.
To suggest that it’s Gerbe’s fault for being 5-foot-5 is ludicrous, because one could make the argument that any headshot to a player of smaller stature — regardless of malicious intent or severity — would’ve been a minor penalty and not a suspend-able play if the recipient was a few inches taller. On the contrary, it was Grabner’s responsibility to recognize that Gerbe is shorter and approach the situation differently.
As if that weren’t enough, the Isles announced yesterday that Brian Strait would miss Friday’s game in Pittsburgh with what they described as an “upper-body injury.” He’d previously been injured in February, when he broke his ankle and missed a significant amount of time.
Upon his return, it was obvious that Strait had a lot of rust to shake off. Even during the nine games he’s appeared in this season, that process was still ongoing. He simply has not been the same hockey player, which has hurt the team’s on-ice performance.
In a way, the fact that Radek Martinek had been skating in practice for a few weeks was a blessing in disguise. On Thursday, Isles brass met to discuss their approach to this sudden injury crisis and ultimately decided to bring Martinek aboard on a one-year, $600,000 contract.
The Martinek signing is a low-risk, slightly-higher reward move and one that, at least in the short-term, should help patch up that gaping hole in the Islanders’ defense.
Unfortunately, his addition to the lineup won’t be enough to clog up the pores that have let through a seemingly endless parade of odd-man rushes and quality scoring chances by the opposition.
That, among several other issues, has been a key reason why eight of the nine games New York has played have been decided by a single goal.
“We’ve played a lot of one-goal games,” said head coach Jack Capuano. “That’s the way the league is. I see us playing in a lot of tight games this year, there’s no question. That’s why, from a structure standpoint, we’ve gotta be solid. Our guys know, it’s the consistency. They’ve gotta find it.”
Capuano has expressed several times that, although he’s liked the way some of his players have come through, he’s also seen too many passengers. Considering that the Islanders will be without at least three key components until Saturday night — Grabner is eligible to return after Friday’s contest — they cannot afford to have that happen.
“We need some guys to play better, there’s no question,” Capuano said. “We need some guys to engage more if they want the ice time.”
The absences of Visnovsky and Grabner have given Matt Donovan and Brock Nelson a chance to play and, on Tuesday night, both youngsters made the most it. Nelson scored his first NHL goal early in the first period and Donovan was buzzing all night, though he did not wind up on the score sheet.
After the game, Nelson acknowledged his milestone moment, but then offered a response that I thought showed a real sense of maturity on his part.
“It was exciting to score my first NHL goal, but it’d be a lot better if it came in a win,” he said. “You have to turn the page, but it’s a tough one. The guys worked hard at the end there. When you get that point, you wish you come out with two. You just have to learn from this.”
Donovan had 26 shifts and received 20:37 of ice time in the game against Vancouver. That morning, he said he was looking forward to getting back into the lineup.
“You hate to see a teammate go down, but it should open up some opportunities for me to jump up and produce,” he said.
Another cause for concern was the fact that Evgeni Nabokov had a real poor outing in that 5-4 shootout loss to the Canucks. He’d surrendered a few weak goals on other nights but, overall, Nabokov had been very solid.
Before the season began, I stressed that the Islanders needed to give Kevin Poulin more starts or else Nabokov might be subject to frequent burnouts. That’s exactly what transpired in the Vancouver game.
Ironically, Capuano channeled his inner-John Tortorella after the game. When asked about Nabokov, he simply said the following: “I’m not gonna discuss the goaltending.”
Of course, when the question was raised about whether or not we’d see Poulin anytime soon, Capuano proceeded to discuss the goaltending:
“(Kevin) Poulin’s gonna get his chance here shortly,” he said. “And as we move into more games, if he plays well he’s gonna play more.”
As I’ve mentioned in the past, if Poulin can provide quality support when called upon, the Islanders will have the flexibility to give Nabokov an adequate amount of rest so he can be at his best.
Even that won’t be enough, however, unless the players execute on the ice. If that doesn’t happen, they’re going to continue to have issues on the ice and will have trouble gaining traction in the playoff race.
“The way that it’s slipped is a little concerning because I thought there were times that we could’ve put teams away,” said Capuano. “It’s frustrating ‘em a bit, but it’s not like we’re playing poorly. I’d be the first to tell you, after evaluating and watching the game tape, there are some good things, but there are certain guys that need to play better. Collectively, as a group, we have to play better.”
John Tavares, who’s been nothing short of outstanding this season, echoed that same sentiment.
“We seem to be getting a couple of tough breaks, but at the same time we’re just giving a little bit too much at wrong times of the game,” he said. “We’re letting teams hang around and stay in it. It’s hurting us.”
Injuries are going to happen, but if you have depth and are getting contributions from players who are stepping up to fill those voids, you can minimize the damage and even win some hockey games.
Consistency is everything, and one way or another, the New York Islanders are going to find that out. Whether they learn it the right or wrong way is entirely up to them.
Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter @DFriedmanWFAN.
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