Ah, the curious case of the November 2008 New York Islanders, who wouldn't know how to protect a lead if their season depended on it. Crystallizing what ails them, the Isles led Pittsburgh 3-2 entering the third but were outshot 18 to freaking one in the period before losing in a most bizarre shootout.
Three times is a curiosity, four times a slump. But add to this four-pack the win they eked out over the Rangers -- when they didn't blow the lead but tried to -- and you have a disturbing trend.
Every team will give up third-period leads from time to time -- that's inevitable. It's the nature by which they bestow these gifts to their foes that tells us something. And the Islanders, repeatedly, are [ed.: Crappy sentence alert!] looking lost while leading in the third period of the very same games -- against the very same teams -- where they nabbed these elusive leads in minutes 1 through 40.
At this point I think we can rule out one theory: Late-game fatigue from Scott Gordon's forechecking system. The Islanders have recovered well enough during a busy schedule -- well enough to open new leads the night after blowing them.
Gordon has diagnosed that the team, once ahead, deviates from its system -- and certainly a stubborn refusal to skate is a deviation from any system I know. So the question is, why? Why do they look so lost one intermission after looking so good? I have a theory.
I think the issue is twofold:
1. The Islanders players are all products of the last 15 years of hockey philosophy. Gordon's philosophy is pedal-down, do not let up or change based on the score. But that is rare in upper-tier hockey after about 1994. As we've seen from Lemaire to Hitchcock to Quenneville -- essentially every long-term coach outside of Pat Quinn -- leads in this age are made to be protected and sat on. Backwards skating, passive neutral-zone clog, do not pass go. Coaches' careers depend on it. Players are drilled relentlessly on their coach's version of it. And they get benched if they're not doing everything in their power to prevent even the outside possibility of a goal when a win is in the sights. So Islanders players, I submit, are caught between this drilled-in nature and the instructions of the coach they've had for just 14 games.
2. When the players return to this drilled-in instinct, they have no single recipe to go by. You can see it happen each game. The Islanders' opponent regroups and launches their comeback drive with a little extra intensity. Blown back, the Islanders players sense that they're facing a stronger wave of attack than they faced while building their lead through their system in the first two periods. So they let up, looking to go safe, to go for the defensive shell. In this system, that means they stop skating with purpose and cohesion. Each opponent advance only intensifies this instinct, and they let up more. It's a spiral. Assignments are blown. Things fall apart. The crescendo in the Penguins game was when the Kennedy-Cooke-Zigomanis line absolutely skated star-crossed circles around the Isles' zone for an entire shift before nabbing the tying goal.
"When you're under attack like that, sometimes all you can do is defend," said defenseman Andy Sutton, who blocked eight shots. "But it's the responsibility of each player to show some poise and make a play . . . I don't think it's physical at all. It's definitely a mental thing. We have to be, as a group, mentally strong. Collectively, you have to make a decision on how you want to play and stick to that."
The problem is, while these players have all been schooled at previous stops in variations of the Jacques Lemaire School of Snoozer-Safe Hockey, they haven't been drilled on it here. So there's no single "prevent" in the Gordon guidebook for them to turn to. That's not how he rolls. Gordon says, you got the lead by putting your opponent on his heels, so you best keep him there to finish him off.
But that's not how things unfold when their defensive instinct kicks in as the pressure builds: Instead, they resort to their previous coaches' instructions on where to sit in the defensive zone, on when to go down to block, when to go to the corner to check, when to avoid going too deep in the offensive zone. And when everyone on the ice is going "Panic! Prevent!" but no one agrees with anyone else as to what that entails, you get the lost, passive, self-fulfilling circus of fear we saw in the third period vs. the Islanders.
So, What's Next?
How the Islanders and Gordon elect to get out of this rut will be interesting. If the Islanders had a more intense following, you'd have columnists calling for Gordon to switch things up, to come up with some version of sit-and-yawn hockey to protect leads and the precious points they represent. Expedience over entertainment. While Gordon would plead patience -- as he has so far -- fuses would get short, management would question whether this will work. Pressure would build to make a change or walk the plank.
"I know the things I've done in the past as a coach have been successful. I don't want to go outside of how I feel or what I feel is right for the hockey team. If it doesn't work out, at least I want to die on my own sword."
--first-year Thrashers coach John Anderson, who like Gordon is trying
to instill a "Now, for something completely different" system in his team
But the Islanders are in an admitted reconstruction, so they theoretically have the time to wait this out, to see if the players they have can learn the necessary new habits -- or more precisely, to see if they can unlearn their old late-game habits. Tellingly, players like Nate Thompson (who's had Gordon before) and Richard Park (who's able to adjust his unstoppable motor to any system) are the ones doing the best in these situations. If the rest of the lineup can come on board, Gordon just might have something here.
If not, I anticipate that some time later this season, a heavy hand will "suggest" Gordon adapt his philosophy to the realities of the NHL. And if it comes to that, here's betting his grizzled veteran leaders would be leading the charge.
Well, it's a theory, anyway. Got any better ones?