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  Articles > NHL > Islanders
 Nash Propels Rangers in OT Win over Isles

Rangers forward Rick Nash lurks in front of the Islanders net.

UNIONDALE, NY – In a playoff atmosphere before a sold-out crowd of 16,170 last night at the Nassau Coliseum, the crunch time heroics of Rangers forward Rick Nash were on display as he led the Rangers to a 2-1 overtime victory against their cross-town rival New York Islanders. Nash tied the game 1-1 at 14:37 of the 3rd period, and later setup the game winner by Marian Gaborik at 0:42 of overtime.

Gaborik’s 8th of the season came on the power play, with Michael Grabner sent off for hooking 0:21 in to the overtime period.

Both teams came out strong, and the play was up and down the ice at a fast pace for most of the night. Islanders forward Michael Grabner opened the scoring with his 10th goal of the season, burying a shot in the top right corner on a feed from Colin McDonald behind the net at 11:51 of the first period. Grabner played a strong game, registering 4 shots on goal. In the second period, Grabner used his speed to get around Rangers defenseman Roman Hamrlik, but couldn’t find the back of the net. Hamrlik played well in his Rangers debut, seeing 18 shifts for 15:48 of ice.

The Isles had a number of chances to build on their early lead, and would regret not being able to do so.

Josh Bailey found himself all alone in the high slot in the second period, but a hurried wrist shot was turned away with the blocker by Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqist. Matt Moulson managed 3 shots on goal, including a partial breakaway that saw him sail a backhand high over the glove of Lundqvist at 11:40 of the second period.

The Islanders did not get a chance on the power play, the first time since January 7, 1989 that the Isles did not have a power play in a game against the Rangers. The Isles weren’t very happy about it.

“Maybe we’re wrong; maybe they played a real clean game… It’s very frustrating,” said Islanders forward Matt Martin.

Still, the Islanders aggressive penalty kill generated the better chances when Casey Cizikas was sent off for holding at 11:07 and Kyle Okposo went off for tripping at 16:05 of the second period. Lundqvist came up big for the Rangers stopping Martin on a short-handed breakaway, and Grabner on a great chance in front of the net with the Isles down a man. Lundqvist stopped 28 of 29 shots against the swarming Islanders.

While the Rangers were also playing with great intensity, they were having even more trouble getting a puck past Evgeni Nabokov- who turned away 35 of 27 shots. Ryan McDonagh and  J.T. Miller were stopped on great chances in front of the net in the second period. In the third, Darroll Powe was all alone in front but couldn’t get it past the Islanders netminder. Nash made a particularly nice inside out move towards the net early in the third period, only to be turned away by Nabokov.

Nash’s persistence paid off when he finally broke through on the Nabokov with the tying goal late in the third, and later setting up the game winner in overtime. All of Nash’s 8 goals this season have come in the 3rd period.

“He’s an elite player, big and strong,” Islanders head coach Jack Capuano said after the game. “You have to have an awareness when he’s on the ice and try to contain him.”

The Rangers take their 4-game winning streak back to Madison Square Garden to face-off against the Senators tonight, while the Islanders prepare to host the Capitals tomorrow afternoon.

Link to Photo Gallery

 Rangers, Islanders Look to Keep Streaks Alive

Rangers vs Islanders © by Robert Kowal

The Islanders will be playing their sixth game of a seven-game home stand tonight when they host their cross town rival New York Rangers at the Nassau Coliseum this evening at 7:00pm.

The teams split a pair of games in New York in February, with the Islanders rallying for a shootout victory on Valentine’s Day in the teams’ last meeting. The Rangers have out-scored the Islanders 7-4 in those games, including a 4-0 advantage in the first period. While the adrenaline should fuel a fast pace early in the game, the Islanders must stay focused against a Rangers team that seems to be hitting their stride.

“We’ll be ready. Everyone follows through on their checks a bit more when we play them,” said the Islanders Matt Martin this morning, who leads the NHL with 110 hits this season.

Although the Islanders have had their troubles at home this season, the team is 3-1-0 against the Rangers in their last four contests at the Coliseum. Still, it will be key for the Islanders to play a smart, consistent game- particularly in the defensive end early and throughout the game.

Both teams have played well of late.

The Rangers come in to the game on a three-game winning streak, matching the club’s longest of the year. After a slow start on the power play, the team has scored with the man advantage in six of their last nine games (7/31, 22.6%). Forward Rick Nash leads the team with 7 goals (all in 3rd periods), and the team is 10-2-1 in the last 13 games he has played.

Meanwhile the Islanders have won their last two games, recording their fifth two-game winning streak this season with their 6-3 victory over the Canadiens on Tuesday. While Nash has lead the way for the Rangers, the Islanders John Tavares has lit the lamp 14 times this season (third most in the league), and is arguably New York’s best player right now.

Brad Richards was not on the ice for this morning’s skate, and according to the NY Daily News Pat Leonard he will likely not play in tonight’s game .

Rangers head coach John Tortorella will likely replace him in the lineup with former Islander Micheal Haley. Looking to add some toughness to his lineup, Islanders head coach Jack Capuano will dress Eric Boulton in place of David Ullstrom. I wonder what lines will start the game… it should be an entertaining contest tonight!

 Isles Fall to Leafs 5-4 in Overtime

Islanders scramble in front of the Maple Leafs net. © by Robert Kowal

UNIONDALE, NY – The Islanders got off to a strong start last night, scoring on their first shot of the game when Kyle Okposo setup Josh Bailey on a pretty pass in front of the net at 3:34 of the first period.

“It was a heck of a play by Okie,” Bailey said after the game.

Unfortunately for the Islanders, Nazem Kadri’s first career hat-trick proved to much to overcome, as the team lost to the Maple Leafs 5-4 in overtime. The Islanders continue to struggle at the Nassau Coliseum early in this shortened season losing their fourth straight at home, leaving the team with a home record of 2-8-1.

“We’ve been inconsistent, obviously,” said Isles Coach Jack Capuano.

Lubomir Visnovsky scored his first goal of the season at 6:22 of the second period, but inconsistent play on defense and between the pipes put the Islanders down 4-2 through two periods.

To their credit, the Islanders came out strong to start the third period, and Andrew MacDonald brought the team within a goal of tying the score with his first goal of the season on shot from the point at 5:31. Okposo then scored his second of the season at 10:08 to tie the game at 4-4.

Michael Grabner, who missed on a penalty shot in the first period, nearly won it for the Isles early in overtime before Dion Phaneuf secured the victory for the Leafs at 1:11 of overtime for a 5-4 final score.

The Islanders continue their home stand when they take on the Ottawa Senators this Sunday at 3:00pm.

Link to Photo Gallery

 Islanders Bolt the Barn for Brooklyn

Bobby Nystrom scores the the winning goal in double overtime back in 1980 against the Philadelphia Flyers to secure their first of four straight Stanley Cups.

It was a tough day for Islanders fans yesterday, as the team announced it will be leaving the Nassau Coliseum (the only home the franchise has known since they entered the NHL in 1972), for the Barclays Center in Brooklyn starting in the 2015-16 season.  At least they will not be headed to Quebec or Kansas City.

You certainly can’t blame the team for leaving, as they didn’t have much of a choice at this point. Brooklyn may be a tough market to attract new fans, although I’m sure some will come aboard. At least Brooklyn and their new arena should be more attractive to free agents.

Don’t blame the residents of Nassau county for voting down the referendum to use taxpayer money to build a new arena, despite the loss of jobs and tax revenue the county will see as a result. It’s tough to ask residents to fund a privately owned business. Even though as a fan I supported the referendum- there is still something fundamentally wrong with the concept. For Nassau residents- hopefully the county (the Town of Hempstead) will be able to help some builder to construct something worthwhile on the land soon.

The failure of Nassau county politicians to help facilitate Islanders owner Charles Wang in building not only a new arena, but the land surrounding the Coliseum has been most disappointing- to say the least. If I were to place the blame anywhere, it would be on politics. What else is new?

For Islanders fans, commuting to Brooklyn via the LIRR will not be very attractive to many middle-aged fans with families. No longer a 15-20 minute drive away, time and cost will be prohibitive. Younger fans may actually prefer it- no more desigated drivers needed!

All in all, life (and hockey) goes on. It’s just another example of how nothing is forever. The Islanders heyday in Nassau county will now be nothing but memories, with no hope of greatness again in that old barn in Uniondale.

 Who’s to Blame for Islanders Current Mess?

Photo by Robert Kowal

While no one expected the Islanders to have a shot at the Stanley Cup this season, many were hopeful the team would make a legitimate run at a playoff spot. The teams’ strong finish to last season gave management and fans alike something to look forward to. Key defenseman Mark Streit was returning to the lineup, in addition to a healthy Kyle Okposo. Assistant captain John Tavares had a full season under his belt, and a young core that included Josh Bailey and Blake Comeau also had another year of experience. Throw in some veteran leadership with the likes of Brian Rolston, Jay Pandolfo and Marty Reasoner- and the Islanders seemed ready to take that next step heading into the season, and no longer be a doormat for opposing teams.

What the hell happened?

Just 18 games into the season, the Islanders find themselves in yet another free fall similar to last season. The Islanders are now in the midst of a 2-12-0 tailspin in which they have been outscored 65-24. The team has been outscored 12-0 in their last 7 periods of play, and were embarrassed in front of a national audience last night in Pittsburgh when Sidney Crosby returned to action. Needless to say, the Islanders have been downright dreadful.

Who’s to blame? Management? The coaching staff? The players? Truth is, all have some responsibility for the team’s performance thus far. More importantly, what needs to be done to fix this mess? Trading some draft picks for Alex Ovechkin would be nice, but unfortunately Washington Capitals GM George McPhee will not likely go for that. So the question then becomes: What can be done? Remaining positive is not going to be enough. Many believe heads need to roll.

While GM Garth Snow didn’t exactly have a great off-season, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for the ax to fall on him. Garth has had a tough job attracting free agents, and probably relied a bit to much on the development of his young players heading into the season. Still, when was the last time Snow has made a deal of significance to impact the team?

Do the Islanders fire their head coach again? Current head coach Jack Capuano seemed to have the team turned around last year after taking over for Scott Gordon, particularly late in the season. The players responded well to Capuano’s approach behind the bench, which was much different than Gordon’s. Has the team now tuned him out as well? Under the circumstances, I think Jack has done a fine job and deserves to stay. Who do you replace him with anyway?

The leaders in the locker room must start taking responsibility for the teams recent lackluster play- and take action to correct it.  Tavares can’t do it all by himself. The veteran leaders on this team that contribute much less on the ice need to start showing their worth, or be shown the door.

The Islanders young core of players were supposed to take the next step in their development this season. Many are not doing their part. The most maligned culprits include Kyle Okposo, Blake Comeau and Josh Bailey. Between the three of them, they have played in 48 games and have only a single goal and 5 assists to show for it. Most nights they’ve been practically invisible on the ice. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

What’s been most disturbing has been the Islanders recent uninspired play. The team has lost some spirit and toughness with the departures of Zenon Konopka to Ottawa, and the demotions of both Michael Haley and Trevor Gillies to Bridgeport. While no one is making them out to be world beaters, the Islanders do seem to be missing some of the intangibles these guys brought to the table.

Some scoring help wouldn’t hurt either. I guess you could say that for most teams, but 35 goals in 18 games (last in the league) is just not going to cut it. Okposo, Comeau and Bailey were being counted on in a big way to fill the net this season, and have been the biggest disappointments on the ice for the team. I like all of these guys, and think they possess a lot of talent. I honestly don’t know why they have been unable to produce. Nevertheless, the time has come to shake up this Islanders roster, and a change of scenery for some might be best.

The time is now for Garth to earn his paycheck. It’s still early, but the clock is already ticking on the Islanders season.

 Islanders Come up Empty Against the Penguins

UNIONDALE, N.Y. – The Islanders came into last nights game against the Pittsburgh Penguins looking to get things going after 2 tough losses in Florida to the Lightning and Panthers, but were shutout 3-0 in front of 10,681 fans at the Nassau Coliseum.

Within the first minute of play Penguins goaltender Marc Andre-Fleury stopped P.A. Parenteau. Soon after a Kyle Okposo’s blast from in front of the net was blocked by Penguins defenseman Deryk Engelland. It was a sign of things to come: big saves and blocked shots by the Penguins. Fleury ended the game stopping all 33 shots he faced, while the Pens blocked an additional 26 thrown at the net by the Islanders.

Despite a first period that saw the Islanders skate well and outshoot the Penguins by a 13-7 margin, the Islanders just couldn’t break through on Fleury. The Islanders second line of Grabner-Nielsen-Okposo were moving the puck well in the period, generating some chances- but were just unable to find the back of the net.

“I’m sure its frustrating for them, not getting the results they want,” head coach Jack Capuano said after the game. When commenting on the rest of the team, Capuano said “The guys worked hard and created some offense.”

Brooks Orpick sprung a streaking Pascal Dupuis up the middle on a breakaway at 17:06 of the opening frame, who beat goaltender Evgeni Nabokov to the stick side giving the Penguins a 1-0 lead. Nabokov started for third time in four games, and was backed up by Rick DiPietro- who apparently has recovered from a concussion sustained in practice October 12th when he took a shot to the mask.

“He gave us a chance to win the game,” Capuano said, when refering to his starting goaltender last night.

Former Islander Richard Park scored 0:21 seconds into the 2nd period off a feed from another former Islander, Arron Asham- taking the wind out the Islanders sails. Jordan Staal would later ice the game scoring an empty net goal with 2:00 to go in the final period.

Despite being without captain Sidney Crosby and Tyler Kennedy to concussions, as well as defensemen Zbynek Michalek (broken finger) and Brian Strait (hyperextended elbow), the Penguins played solid hockey all night. Evgeni Malkin, who had missed five straight games with knee soreness, returned to action and played well, registering 3 shots on goal.

The Islanders did have 2 power plays in the game, both in the 2nd period- but were unable to break through, getting only 2 shots to the net with the man advantage. Still, the team did generate several good scoring chances in the contest. John Tavares, who had 4 shots in the game, felt the team played much better than on their recent road trip.

“Guys were skating well and forechecking much better” he said, “we had a lot of chances.”

The Islanders, who have now lost three in a row, drop to 3-4-0 on the season. The team will have a chance to turn things around on Thursday when they take on the Penguins again in Pittsburgh.

Postgame Audio Clips
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John Tavares

Richard Park

 Jiggs McDonald’s 2011-12 Broadcast Schedule

Among the guests on my show last night was Jiggs McDonald, one of hockey’s all-time great hockey broadcasters. It’s always a pleasure to get a chance to speak with Jiggs, and a treat for myself and many longtime Islanders fans when we get to hear him call the action. Last night Jigg’s informed us that he will be broadcasting 9 games for the Islanders this season, all of which will be on the road.

Jiggs only visit to the Nassau Coliseum will come on November 19th, when the Islanders take on the Boston Bruins. The Islanders will honor Ed Westfall on that night as a part of their “Decade Nights” taking place throughout the season. While Jiggs will not be in the broadcast booth that evening, he will MC the pre-game festivities honoring Westfall, who sat beside him on Islanders telecasts for many years.

Here’s the list of Islanders games Jiggs will be calling the play-by-play for this season:

Date Opponent Time (ET) TV Network
Thursday, November 10, 2011 Avalanche 9:00 PM MSG PLUS
Sunday, November 13, 2011 Canucks 9:00 PM MSG PLUS
Saturday, December 17, 2011 Wild 8:00 PM MSG PLUS 2
Tuesday, December 20, 2011 Jets 8:30 PM MSG PLUS 2
Tuesday, January 03, 2012 Hurricanes 7:00 PM MSG PLUS
Friday, January 06, 2012 Ducks 10:00 PM NHLN-CA, MSG PLUS
Saturday, January 07, 2012 Coyotes 8:00 PM MSG PLUS 2
Tuesday, February 14, 2012 Jets 8:30 PM MSG PLUS 2
Thursday, February 16, 2012 Blues 8:00 PM MSG PLUS

 
Follow Rob on Twitter @nyhockeytalk.

 Tavares Leads Islanders Over Rangers
  Scores hat-trick in 4-2 victory

UNIONDALE, N.Y. – A sold out crowd at the Nassau Coliseum last night watched a budding superstar in New York Islanders forward John Tavares score a hat-trick in leading his team to a 4-2 victory over their division rival New York Rangers.

In the first of six meetings this season between these two teams, Islanders head coach Jack Capuano raised a few eyebrows turning to goaltender Evgeni Nabokov for start, in place of Al Montoya- who has played well in each of his 3 starts this young season. The move paid off, as Nabokov turned away 29 of 31 shots in the victory, including 13 of 14 in the first period.

“It was a boost to play in front of a packed house,” Nabokov said after the game.

The Islanders speed up front gave the Rangers depleted defense problems right from the start. However, the star of the game undoubtedly was Tavares. Not exactly known for his speed, Tavares worked hard on his skating this off-season, and has been moving well not only in the offensive zone, but all over the ice. After breaking out for 2 goals and 2 assists in a 5-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday, Tavares picked up right where he left off, assisting on a goal by linemate Matt Moulson to open the scoring in the first period. Tavares went on to score a goal in the 2nd, followed by two in the third (including an empty netter) for the hat-trick, leading the Islanders to their third straight victory of the season.

“You’re not going to say no to production like that,” Tavares said. “It’s nice to produce, it’s what I do best.”

While Rangers head coach John Tortorella had been preaching disclipline after the teams first two games, the team apparently did not get the message as his team commited eight minor penalties in the contest. While some of the calls may have been questionable, he was in no mood for excuses following the game.

“We’re not going to sit here and pick apart penalties. We’re in the box too much,” Tortorella said. “We’re not gonna sit here and gripe about what is and what isn’t a penalty. We simply have to be more disciplined.”

Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist agreed.

“There were a couple of times where we kind of took over the game, but unfortunately we took a few penalties and it kind of killed that momentum that we had,” he said. “We have to work even harder to be more disciplined out there.”

On the positive side for the Rangers, their top line of Stepan-Richards-Gaborik played extremely well when afforded 5 on 5 play. Gaborik in particular was all over the ice, and is clearly developing some nice chemistry with his linemates.

The rivalry between these teams was alive and well last night. Both teams are on the rise, and quite possibly will be battling each other for a playoff spot. The quality of play, intensity and excitement of these games should only get better.

 Rangers and Islanders Face Off Tonight

The Islanders and Rangers face off this evening at the Nassau Coliseum, the first of six meetings between the teams this season, and the first of three meetings at the Coliseum. While the Rangers are searching for their first win of the season after an 0-0-2 road trip overseas, the Islanders come into the game having won 2 straight, after a 2-0 loss to the Panthers in their season home opener.

The young guns have led the way for both teams early on, and it will likely have to continue if they want to reach the playoffs this season. The Rangers new captain Ryan Callahan finished their season opener against the Kings with 11 shots on goal, while leading all team forwards with 20:30 of ice time in a 3-2 overtime loss. The last Ranger to register at least 11 shots in a game was Brendan Shanahan (12 shots) back on April 4th, 2008 vs. the Islanders. The Rangers 2004 fourth round pick has been skating with his usual hustle and tenacity right out of the gate. Meanwhile, the Islanders 2009 first round pick (1st overall) John Tavares broke out with 2 goals and 2 assists in the first period in the Islanders 5-1 thrashing of the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday night- an impressive performance by the Islanders.

Make no mistake, there is a lot of firepower in the Islanders mostly young lineup. Coach Jack Capuano’s decision to go with goaltender Al Montoya early is already paying dividends. The former Rangers first round pick in 2004 (6th overall) brings a 2-1-0 record into the game, along with a 1.35 GAA and a .953 save percentage. More importantly, Capuano has sent a message to his team that performance on the ice will matter more than the size of your contract or how long you have been in the league. While many coaches preach this, most don’t follow through. Capuano has thus far, and I’d expect that to continue. Refreshing indeed. The Islanders will likely go with the same lineup tonight.

The Rangers feature off-season free agent signing Brad Richards, providing goal scorer Marian Gaborik with an elite centerman. While Richards leads the NHL with a 79.2% faceoff winning percentage (19-24) in the early going- the Rangers certainly expect him to light up the scoreboard as well. Meanwhile, home grown talents Dan Girardi, Brandon Dubinsky and captain Ryan Callahan will be expected to shoulder a lot of ice time. The Rangers defense will be tested tonight and throughout the season, especially with Marc Staal on the shelf. Tortorella isn’t afraid to shake the forward lines up, so you can pretty much count on that tonight- especially if the Rangers have any trouble finding the net. Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist should get the start- he has been solid, going 0-0-2 with a 1.86 GAA and a .931 save percentage. The Rangers haven’t played in a week, so I’m sure they will be revved up to hit the ice.

I expect an exciting game tonight. The Islanders are coming off a big win Wednesday night, and will be looking to keep it going. The Rangers need to be mindful of not coming out flat- sometimes it can be tough to get the wheels going after a long layoff.  Who do I like to win it? That’s easy, New York!

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Islanders Notes
The Islanders were 2-4-0 against the Rangers in 2010-11, including a 2-1-0 mark at home… The Islanders have played the same 18 skaters and Al Montoya in all three games this season… The Islanders are 14-for-15 on the penalty kill this season (93.3%)… Matt Moulson’s games-played streak stands at 167, he has yet to miss a game in his Islanders career… Travis Hamonic has now played 65 consecutive NHL games, the longest consecutive game streak on defense for the Isles… Jay Pandolfo is one goal shy of his 100th…Michael Grabner is one game shy of his 100th NHL contest…

Rangers Notes
The Blueshirts were 4-2-0 against the Islanders in 2010-11, including a 1-2-0 mark on the road… The Rangers lead the league with a 57.9% faceoff winning percentage, winning 66-of-114 faceoff attempts this season… Rangers are 10-for-11 on the penalty kill this season (90.9%)… The Blueshirts were the only team in the NHL who were undefeated when leading after two periods last season, posting a record of 29-0-0 in those contests… Brad Richards is 3 assists shy of his 500th… Brandon Prust is one game shy of his 200th NHL contest… Mike Rupp is one game shy of his 500th NHL contest…

 Nassau Needs New Ice, Not New Diamonds

The August 1 referendum is fast approaching when Nassau County voters will vote on the proposed raising of $400 million in bonds to help finance the construction of a new multi-purpose arena as well as a minor-league baseball stadium. It’s important to be clear on what’s at stake. Unfortunately as usual, the politicians and their bed-fellows have bit off more than the people of the county need to chew and it’s this extra unnecessary scrap on the plate of the taxpayer that’s tough to swallow.

I’m sure we all can agree that this new arena, serving primarily as the new home of the New York Islanders, is long overdue. The 4-time Stanley Cup Champion hockey club has played in the oldest barn in the NHL for too long as it is. Even if approved, the new facility would still be years in the offing. The team was born and raised on the Hempstead Plain and it would be a tragedy of colossal proportions for Long Island to force the Isles to move because a new “Coliseum” can’t be built.

We could also agree that the Lighthouse Project was a rather excessive endeavor for someone seeking a new building for his hockey team. I’ve always felt that Islanders’ ownership should set the realistic goal of getting a new arena built, first and foremost. That’s the urgent matter at hand, that’s what’s needed to keep the Islanders here. We now have that proposition put before the people of Nassau County. There’s MORE here, though.

The deal we’ve heard of includes not only the “new Coliseum, “ but a new minor-league baseball stadium to be built on the Mitchel Field area property as well! Seems someone’s trying to ride into Uniondale on the coattails of the Islanders. Sort of a “…well, while you guys have your shovels out, I’d like a new ballpark! …It’ll brings lots of JOBS…blah-blah.” The politicos and the bed-fellows like to play the “Increased-Revenue” and the “New-Jobs” cards. That’s their spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. The minor-league ballpark piece of the plan should be scrapped to save the taxpayers the burden of paying for something that’s really not necessary.

We have the best major league baseball market in the nation and both the Mets and the Yankees have minor-league clubs within easy travel distance from central Nassau. There’s already an unaffiliated minor league team in Suffolk. To add yet another one – same basic concept, same ballpark, same league, same ownership, same act that’s been playing out there for 10 years – is not needed at all, especially with the people of Nassau paying for this enterprise that for the most part, just puts more money in someone else’s pocket. Here’s where the same old “increased revenue, new jobs” tune gets played. Sorry. Perhaps in a better economic climate. The people of Nassau shouldn’t have to “duck” when this proposal comes their way because it doesn’t FIT the “bill” while they have to FOOT the “bill.”

The August 1 referendum is should be about the new arena and the new arena only and the year-round (here it comes…) revenue and jobs it will bring to the county from concerts, conventions, and most of all, the home games of the 4-time Stanley Cup Champion Islanders. That’s ALL that’s needed and that’s ALL that should be built.

 Islanders’ Fate Tied to Montoya, At Least For Next Year

Every American likes a redemption story. It’s wired into our DNA.

Announcer Ted Williams went from homeless to celebrity overnight. Texas Rangers slugger Josh Hamilton went from first overall draft pick to drug addict to American League MVP over an eleven-year period. NHL stars Mario Lemieux, Saku Koivu, and Phil Kessel rebounded from cancer to re-capture star status in hockey’s best league.

When you consider those accomplishments, Al Montoya’s meteoric rise with the Islanders may seem insignificant by comparison. But it’s certainly one that no one saw coming.

Let’s go back to February 8. When upstart rookie Kevin Poulin caught a rut in the always-perilous Nassau Coliseum ice during warm-ups, the Islanders’ goaltending situation hit threat level midnight. The team traded away Dwayne Roloson five weeks earlier and were in the midst of another Rick DiPietro knee swelling sideshow (complete with a TKO from Penguins goaltender Brent Johnson). Nathan Lawson, dealing with knee troubles of his own at the time, isn’t an NHL-caliber goalie. And Mikko Koskinen, a 2009 second-round pick, allowed two goals on the first two shots he saw in his NHL career that night against Toronto.

One thing was clear: The Islanders were going to have trouble keeping pucks out of their own net with their internal options. Their options were either too worn down by constant injury (DiPietro), too untalented (Lawson), too raw (Koskinen), too injured (Poulin), or too proud to report to the team (Evgeni Nabokov). So it was no secret that Garth Snow was looking to add another goalie to the fold, just for the sake of having someone somewhat reliable to stand between the pipes for the rest of the season.

What did surprise was that his solution was Montoya, whose career appeared to be dead. His save percentage for the year was .891, and that was with the San Antonio Rampage of the AHL. He had a whopping total of five career NHL games to his credit, all with Phoenix two years prior. The former elite Ranger prospect, drafted sixth overall, failed both there and in Phoenix, despite the faith placed in him by Don Maloney.

On the surface, it seemed like a typical Islander move: cheap (in terms of money and cost to acquire, a sixth-round pick), shrouded in uncertainty, and another misguided attempt to “outsmart the rest of the league”. But a funny thing happened when Montoya arrived: he actually looked pretty good. He had issues with rebound control, but he was able to direct pucks out of harm’s way despite it. His lateral movement and athleticism looked spectacular. Most importantly, the team performed well from the outset, winning his first three starts.

As Montoya continued to get starts, conventional wisdom waited for him to come crashing back down to earth. But he kept his strong play going into March. 33 of 34 saves against Minnesota on March 2. Out-dueling Jaroslav Halak three days later. Out-dueling Tim Thomas six days after that. A blip at Madison Square Garden against the Rangers could’ve been a warning sign, but Montoya erased that with wins in Tampa Bay on the 22nd and a win over the Rangers last night, where his team chased Henrik Lundqvist, the goalie who once blocked his path to the NHL.

Montoya’s success stabilized an Islander team in flux and has helped them to one of the best records in the league during his time here. He’s 9-4-4 in his seventeen starts, with a 2.33 GAA and .923 save percentage. More importantly, the Islanders respond when Montoya is in net. You can tell they like playing in front of him. They look more confident in front of him, as opposed to when they play in front of Rick DiPietro.

It might be hard to understand the 26-year-old Montoya’s success, but it isn’t without precedent. Goalies can develop late, and sometimes need a change of scenery to get their chance to prove themselves. Montoya wasn’t going to get a fair shot with the Rangers, who had Lundqvist between the pipes, or with Phoenix, who had their own late bloomer in Ilya Bryzgalov. In hindsight, he was buried before he got his chance. Once he got it, he showed the signs of the elite talent he had in the first place.

There are examples of goalies who needed numerous years of development all over the NHL. Jean Sebastian-Giguere, a former seventh overall pick, started to hit his stride around this age in Anaheim, his third organization. Flames goalie Miikka Kiprusoff wasn’t a full-time starter in the NHL until he was 27. And let’s not forget Tim Thomas, who bounced around Europe and the AHL for a decade before securing a starting job as a 34-year-old. So it’s feasible that Montoya, once perceived a bust, could bloom into the goalie he was once projected to become.

But there’s a second edge to that sword. Plenty of goalies can put together stretches of great play over a couple of months, a year, or several years, only to completely lose touch with that form and find themselves out of the league. Jim Carey won a starting role with Washington at 21 and won a Vezina trophy the next year. He was back in the AHL by 1998 and was out of hockey altogether after the 1998-99 season. Byron Dafoe usurped Carey as the starter in Boston as a 27-year-old, and put together three stellar seasons for the Bruins (with one injury-shortened one in between). One year after a stellar 2001-02 campaign with Boston, he was traded to Atlanta, where his goals against average ballooned from 2.21 to 4.36. He was out of the NHL after the lockout.

Islander fans can point to some recent examples of their own. Wade Dubielewicz’s four-game miracle to get the Islanders into the playoffs in 2007 was followed by a mediocre season as the team’s backup. He’s in Europe now. Yann Danis’ save percentage with the Islanders in 2008-09 was .910. He’s in Europe now. And let’s not forget Ron Hextall, who sandwiched a horrible season with the Islanders in 1993-94 between a great stretch with the Flyers and a good stretch with the Flyers (with one season in Quebec thrown in for good measure).

The Islanders rewarded Montoya’s success with a one-year extension, something his play deserved. Playing in front of an NHL defense as opposed to a defense on one of the AHL’s worst teams doesn’t hurt. He isn’t the first goaltender to struggle in the AHL, either. (Martin Brodeur, anyone?) But his play also came on a team that was well out of the playoff picture by the time he arrived. It was a no-pressure situation, and he made the most of it.

That’s why Montoya only got extended one year. The expectations for next year’s Islander squad will be higher, as will the expectations for Montoya. If the team is serious about winning, he’ll likely get the first shot at the starting job over DiPietro.

He can ride the wave of redemption through the rest of the season. He finally got his shot. He took advantage. But we won’t know until next season what this season means.

 Injuries are Impeding the Islanders’ Development

You frequently hear the cliché that “age is only a number”, and you may dismiss it. But sometimes that number can represent two separate things entirely.

Both the New York Islanders and Carolina Hurricanes boast teams among the youngest in the National Hockey League, with average ages under 27. But the Hurricanes have challenged for a playoff spot all season, while the Islanders played their way out of the race in November. The two teams are ten points apart in the standings at the moment, but only one is still playing for a playoff spot, following the Islanders’ official elimination from playoff contention last night.

One statistic is as blatant a reason as any: man games lost to injury. And the numbers are staggering. The Islanders, no stranger to the injury bug, have racked up 512 man games lost (through Friday). The Hurricanes? 56.

One of the old sports clichés frequently thrown around is that “injuries are not an excuse”. They’re not the only factor for that ten-point gap. The Hurricanes have one of the best goaltenders in the league (Cam Ward), while the Islanders have started six different players in net this season. The Hurricanes didn’t lose every game they played over an entire month, either.

But having the most man games lost to injury isn’t a new thing for the Islanders, either. They were ninth last year, but they topped the league in 2007-08 and 2008-09. It brings an important concern to the forefront as claims of the Isles’ pending ascent to the elite of the NHL are starting to float around; you can have all the talent in the world, but if it doesn’t stay healthy, it’s a moot point.

Some of those “man games lost to injury” numbers for this year’s team are inflated. Mark Streit hasn’t played a game all year (and won’t). Mike Mottau and Doug Weight haven’t been heard from since November, and won’t be around when this team’s “rapid ascent” occurs. Trent Hunter’s been out since November, too.

There are players, however, whose injury troubles could be crucial. Andrew MacDonald’s torn labrum is the latest in a string of injuries for a player who’s expected to be a part of this team’s defensive core when it starts to win. Kevin Poulin, perhaps the team’s goalie of the future, already has two serious knee injuries under his belt, and he’s only 21. Kyle Okposo missed more than half of this season with a shoulder injury, while Travis Hamonic and Calvin de Haan both suffered serious shoulder injuries while in juniors.

And let’s not forget Rick DiPietro, whose numerous knee, hip, and head injuries almost serve as a metaphor for the team’s injury bug in recent years. DiPietro, whose 15-year deal will be in year six next year, looks like a player whose injury trouble stripped him of his natural talent (that is, when his injuries aren’t keeping him off the ice). He’s an Islander for better or worse, though, unless he walks away.

It’s tough to pinpoint a reason for the Isles’ injury problems. It’s always difficult to prepare for injuries, and bad luck frequently plays a part. (Streit’s injury was a freak accident, for example.) You don’t necessarily blame the team’s training staff, either; their job is to treat the team’s injuries and get them back to health. Perhaps a better job can be done in conditioning. Many people pointed to the “overspeed” style employed by Scott Gordon as a reason for increases in groin pulls, so the team’s simpler philosophy under Jack Capuano might help.

One thing is for sure, though, and that’s that a team can’t win when its top talent is hurt. Injuries in the past few years, particularly on defense, forced the Islanders to play several players in roles that their ability didn’t suit them for. Think about how many minutes Bruno Gervais was forced to take on last year. Think about the rotating defense in recent years that’s seen names like Allan Rourke, Thomas Pock, Rob Davison, Aaron Johnson, Brett Skinner, Dylan Reese, and Jamie Fraser, to name a few. Things got so bad last year that the Islanders brought up Anton Klementyev last year after drafting him in the sixth round of that year’s draft. When you’re using that many players, let alone guys who shouldn’t be holding down NHL roster spots, you’re not going to be able to grow as a team.

The Islanders were one of the best teams this season after the All-Star break, in large part because they stayed healthy (for the most part) and were able to grow as a team. The team’s lines stayed consistent once Okposo came back into the lineup, and that stability translated into better results. But now DiPietro is back, MacDonald is out, Ty Wishart is up in his place, and not surprisingly, the Islanders are staggering to the finish line. They have to hope they draw more from their winning ways if they want to contend next year.

The Islanders and the Hurricanes both appear to have promising futures. The core of each team is well under 30. One has a franchise center coming into his prime (Eric Staal), while the other has a franchise center starting to live up to that tag (John Tavares). Both have Calder candidates (Jeff Skinner and Michael Grabner).

The Hurricanes, however, are more durable. And that should help them find their success faster. The Islanders will need to heal if they want to find success at all.

 

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