By Daniel Friedman
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Bad habits will get you, man.
The Islanders are having third-period troubles again, and they have led to three consecutive losses.
There was a killer instinct in the first few games that is not present right now. Aside from that early stretch, it hasn’t been seen since last season’s All-Star break.
With the exception of one game, the offense hasn’t been good since Jack Capuano decided to mix up the forward lines. On top of that, with John Tavares out of the lineup due to an illness (he is NOT playing Tuesday night vs. the Devils), the forward lines have been in more extensive disrepair.
It’s hard to understand why Capuano mixed things up when his offense was clicking. Then again, that’s something we’ve seen him do quite often over the course of his tenure.
A lack of chemistry can have a dramatic effect on production, but more troublesome of late has been a lack of effort on the part of several players. Brock Nelson doesn’t have a point in his last six games. Ryan Strome and Anders Lee have just a combined two in their past five contests.
I vouched for Strome, but he’s been invisible the past few games. I think he’s been worse since being scratched, and I wonder if he’s frustrated with Capuano and that’s what is impacting his play. If that’s the case, he needs to find a way to channel that frustration into production. Regardless of the reason, I also understand why he’s struggling with it. He’s human.
With those three slumping, the Isles are missing a vital component to their offense. If Tavares was healthy, it would still be an issue.
That is not to suggest that the Islanders won’t ultimately live and die with Tavares over the long run, because they absolutely will. However, they’re more than capable of scoring goals in the short term, and certainly better than Carolina, New Jersey and Buffalo — the latter two games the captain missed.
It’s very easy to say in hindsight that the Devils were red hot, so that’s why they won. Ultimately, the game indicated there were other factors, things a team like the Islanders needs to overcome.
Putting the “kid line” back together to try and jump-start the young guns made sense, but their recent performance indicates they may not be on the same frequency anymore. Each one has grown accustomed to playing with other linemates now and in subtly different roles. It can be difficult for a player to recalibrate, even if he’s re-entering a situation he’s been in previously.
The obvious question is, who’s at fault here? Is it the coach? The players?
Everyone wants to blame one or the other, but the reality is that it’s on both. Very rarely is there one factor involved when a team struggles.
The most logical way to diagnose the issue here is to say that the players need to step up and Capuano needs to be more selective about the lineup decisions he does or doesn’t make. He also needs to just hammer it into his players’ heads that letting up in the third period is unacceptable. Whether he’s trying to do that or not (and I’d be shocked if he wasn’t), it’s not working. So, perhaps he needs to come up with another approach, one that doesn’t involve sitting a player that racks up five points in a seven-game span, just because he has a couple of turnovers and doesn’t morph into Patrice Bergeron whenever the puck’s not on his stick.
Likewise, the players need to wake up. This is still a relatively young locker room, but most of these guys have played enough hockey (at this level and others) to know the importance of putting a team away over the final 20 minutes.
The Isles’ last three opponents were not exactly formidable, but any NHL team will have a chance to win if you let it stay in a game. Unfortunately, that’s precisely what the Islanders have done.
Defense has also been an issue at times, and the Islanders might be wise to call up one of their young defensemen.
Ryan Pulock would be the popular choice, and I want to see him in the NHL soon, but for me, Scott Mayfield is the better choice in this particular situation.
They need someone who can step into a third-pairing support role and play responsible defensively, and Mayfield is that guy. I think Pulock is ready, but unless they’re going to give him a regular roster spot and power play time (which I suspect is not the case right now), he should stay in Bridgeport where he can play in all situations.
In any event, the solution here cannot be to just have Brian Strait hopping over the boards every night until Thomas Hickey is healthy. He’s a seventh defenseman, and so he is what he is — a somewhat serviceable player. He can’t be out there every game; it’s costing this team, and it’s frustrating because there is a viable solution to this problem. Both Garth Snow and Capuano need to recognize this and react accordingly.
Yes, the Islanders are in third place, right behind the Rangers and Capitals. They’re also just one point ahead of Pittsburgh. This is a very tight division and will be all season, so they can’t afford to come away with just two points after playing the Devils, Hurricanes and Sabres. That simply cannot happen.
Now is the time to sort these things out. The Isles are still in a good spot. They’ve got some players who are doing very well. They’ve been sharp on special teams. They’re winning faceoffs and getting solid goaltending.
They just need to stop the snowball from rolling down the hill before things spiral out of control.
Follow Dan on Twitter at @DFriedmanOnNYI