By Daniel Friedman
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Four games are in the books, and since their awful performance in Chicago, the Islanders have rattled off a pair of wins in Brooklyn.
The most recent of the two, a 4-3 victory over previously unbeaten Nashville on Thursday, was an impressive feat, even though the Isles were rather unimpressive at times.
For what it’s worth, they put up four goals on Pekka Rinne and on a defense that’s among the best in the NHL. John Tavares made Shea Weber and Roman Josi look like pylons on several shifts, and recorded his fifth and sixth points of the season (one goal, one assist).
Side note: Coach, you have last change at home – is there a reason Tavares was always out there against Nashville’s best defense pairing? Jack Capuano wants to see more of his forwards get involved in the goal-scoring department and, slowly but surely, his wish is being fulfilled.
“The secondary scoring is gonna have to pick up,” Capuano said. “We’re starting to see it pick up a little bit now. We’re gonna have to get our defense actively involved. If you’re gonna have success in this league, you can’t rely on one guy or one line; it’s just not gonna happen. You need all four lines generating, and you’re gonna have to get points from your back end.”
Capuano is not the only one who’d like to see more secondary scoring. Fans have been clamoring for the team to go out and acquire another winger for months, though in this writer’s opinion it would just be gravy and is otherwise an unnecessary move at this juncture. With the exception of a 4-1 loss in the Windy City, the Isles’ top line of Tavares, Anders Lee and Ryan Strome has been flying out there, so the points will come. Maybe you see Kyle Okposo and Strome trade places, or something to that effect, but the bottom line is that there are plenty of quality options for Tavares as far as wingers are concerned.
Even still, the Islanders go as Tavares goes, just as most teams do with their superstars. But I think these lines just need time to jell and you could certainly see that happening on Thursday night. The second line (Frans Nielsen, Josh Bailey and Okposo) still needs more time, but Okposo did notch his first goal of the season – darting into the Nashville zone, and letting go a confident wrist shot that went bar down and past one of the best goalies in the world.
I was particularly impressed with the trio of Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolay Kulemin and Brock Nelson and thought they got better as the game wore on. They’ve combined for seven points through the first four games, and the Islanders will need them to continue providing that type of support.
I asked Capuano for his impression of Grabovski, who was moved back to center in training camp: “There’s still some things he has to get better with,” the coach said. “But, overall, he’s been pretty good for us and he’s been really good for us in the faceoff circle.”
Grabovski has won 52.4 percent of his draws, and the Islanders have been excellent in that category since opening night. Tavares’s faceoff win rate is 57.7 percent, while Nielsen’s rating (get it?) is a remarkable 61.8. Frans currently leads the league in faceoff win percentage among players who’ve taken at least 30 draws. That’s an area in which the Isles have struggled tremendously over the past few years, so it’s good to see them winning faceoffs early on. Obviously, the key is to keep that trend going.
Another thing I noticed on Thursday night was that the Islanders appeared to be using the terrain and characteristics of their home rink to their advantage. The boards at Barclays Center generate some unique caroms, and it looked to me like Nelson purposely missed the net with his “shot” so that the rebound would pinball right into the slot for a wide-open Kulemin.
I asked Kulemin if it was a set play, or at the very least something the Isles have discovered and have worked on in practice. He told me that it was: “We know the boards are live here and try to use them,” Kulemin said. “So I always (have to) be ready around the net because pucks come out straight in front.”
When I asked Capuano the same question, he was more reserved: “When they work hard, they get in good spots and the puck’s gonna find them. And that’s what I tell them.”
The Isles have, for the most part, gotten the job done 5-on-5, but they’ve had some trouble on the power play. I think there is simply too much talent on this roster for that to be a going concern. Between Johnny Boychuk, Nick Leddy and Marek Zidlicky as blue line options, having Tavares and Strome as playmakers in the circles, a guy like Lee who can go to the front of the net, and someone like Okposo who can muscle off defenders, come out of the corners with pucks and make plays, there is absolutely zero reason why the Islanders should have a bad power play.
A lot of it has to do with having the right personnel out there. I don’t like the idea of Nielsen at the point, even if he enters the zone well. Boychuk and Leddy need to be out there with the top power play unit. Your best skating and puck moving defenseman should be paired with your booming shot on the top unit, with your most skilled guys collecting the puck down low or getting it back to the point. That hasn’t always happened, so to me that’s a big part of why they’ve had trouble finishing with the man-advantage.
It’s about having the right mix of players on the ice together. I think the power play units need to be redesigned to some extent, but I don’t think the solution is all that difficult to implement, either. Even still, the Isles should at least be more effective than they’ve been on the power play. I think it has more to do with a lack of finish than an inability to enter the zone. They’ve got guys who can gain the zone.
I also thought Nashville and Chicago both did a great job taking away entry lanes, and clogging passing and shooting lanes. It also looked to me like guys were trying to feel it out the first few opportunities they had during those first two games. That plays a part here, too. Against Winnipeg, you saw more flow in the offensive zone when the Islanders had the man-advantage.
As I said, I don’t think this is going to be an persistent issue, and I think it’s just a matter of fine-tuning and getting the right players in the right spots. The more the Isles win, the more tightened the focus becomes on hockey. Given recent events, that really needs to happen. As long as the puck’s going in the net, fans can cheer about that.
One thing’s for sure: The Islanders’ offense is up to the task.
Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter at @DFriedmanOnNYI