Sweep Of Ducks, Kings Shows What This Team Is Capable Of When On Its Game

By Daniel Friedman
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Just as the wheels appeared to be falling off, the New York Islanders pulled over to the side, brought out their toolbox and, sure enough, got back on the road.

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All you had to do was look up and down that roster to see that, as I said last week, their wounds were self-inflicted. The Isles were beating themselves and were capable of a lot better.

Well, they showed that by taking two of the best teams in the NHL past regulation and then beating them in overtime and a shootout, respectively. Those wins were much needed, considering they were coming off three straight losses, but getting them was a daunting task. To the Isles’ credit, they took care of business.

“We were tired there in the third, but we hung with it, stuck with the game plan and we really just kind of gutted it out and got a gutty win,” winger Kyle Okposo said following the 2-1 shootout win over the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings on Thursday. “The last two games were huge for us. We got a big win last night, and to come in and play back-to-back in Southern California is not an easy thing to do.”

Anyone who’s read my columns for some amount of time is well aware that I’ve been tough on head coach Jack Capuano. I do believe the criticism is warranted, but I also believe in giving credit where it’s due.

Would he have been my choice to coach this Islander team? No, he wouldn’t, and he’s not without his flaws or questionable tendencies. That said, a lot of things are going right and, at 8-5, there’s no sense in making rash decisions. Had the Isles stretched their losing streak to three or four, it might’ve been a different story. But they didn’t — they buckled down and righted the ship.

Perhaps Capuano is learning from his mistakes as well. He’s relied upon his fourth line a bit too much this season, but limited Matt Martin to 6:58 on Thursday night, while Eric Boulton played just 4:55. Is he starting to realize the importance of ice time distribution? Early signs suggest he might be, and it’s a step in the right direction.

Capuano also switched the lines back to more logical combinations; reuniting the young trio of Ryan Strome, Brock Nelson and Anders Lee. Strome in particular was given lots of ice time on Thursday, and he wound up getting on the score sheet with an assist. That’s what happens when you put talented players in the right positions to succeed.

I’d like to see Johnny Boychuk back on the first power play unit, alongside Lubomir Visnovsky. I think that could make for a lethal combo. It’ll be interesting to see if the coaching staff makes any changes to that unit, but I just can’t help but feel like there’s still much to be desired in that department.

It’s also no coincidence that the Islanders woke up when John Tavares did. He has two goals and an assist in the past two games and is showing that his “slump” is behind him. Not that there was any doubt he’d bounce back, of course.

Another observation – Jaroslav Halak is playing like Jaroslav Halak again.

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He got off to a shaky start, but has settled down in his past few appearances. Given his track record, I’d say his recent performance, including a solid effort in a 3-2 overtime win in Anaheim on Wednesday, is the better indicator of what’s to come.

Chad Johnson rebounded nicely from his previous start and played very well in Los Angeles, which is also an encouraging sign. The goaltending was the one thing I was least worried about in the long run, and you’re seeing why.

“For us, as a group, it was an awesome effort for us to be able to come in here after playing two really good teams and to be able to get four points here,” Johnson said. “It’s a good confidence booster for us. I think we should definitely take positives from this game and use it for the games coming up here.”

There’s something different about this year’s Islanders. They have a lot to work on and the coaching staff needs to be smarter in certain respects, but in terms of their on-ice execution and their ability to dig deep in the face of adversity, we’re seeing a much-improved team.

It’s a big deal anytime you beat Anaheim and L.A., serious power brokers in the deep Western Conference, on back-to-back nights, but for the Isles, it may very well be even more significant than that.

It could mark a turning point.

“I’ve said it all year … we’re not the same team,” Okposo said. “We went on a three-game skid and everyone wanted to hit the panic button, but in here we didn’t because we know what kind of team we have and we’re a good hockey club.”

The Islanders are a good hockey club. They just needed to get back to playing like one.

Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter at @DFriedmanOnNYI

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