I love this Islanders team for the same reason it gives me unexpected heartburn: Though expectations were low coming off last year's 30th-place finish, they have now given us reason to live and die with each win and loss. That's hockey the way it should be. Being in playoff territory 25 games in doesn't mean we can expect a playoff push, but it does give us a whole lot more reason to watch and analyze.
In that spirit, I'll continue to critique each loss -- and sing each win -- without losing sight of the big picture. That big picture is captured by two recent quotes, one from a guy who it's hoped will lead them to the promised land, and one from a guy who may be obsolete when the team becomes strong enough to talk about a promised land.
Pittsburgh Crosby-Malkins (17-8-0) at New York Tavareses (9-9-7)
2 p.m. EST | Nassau [gloriously unsponsored] V.M.C. | MSG+, radio
Reigning Champs: Pensburgh
Scott Gordon, describing the process and current pitfalls to Chris Botta:
"We’re gearing up for better days with a team that’s going to play a certain way."
What is that "certain way?" It's pretty simple, albeit demanding. It's what Nate Thompson told Newsday:
"Everyone was trying to do the right thing and make the right plays, but we have to remember what gives us success. We have to be able to get pucks in and establish our forecheck."
When this team one day gives us a real reason to live and die with each game, it will have added enough good players capable of executing that forecheck for 60 minutes, night in and night out. Until then, we'll get painful lessons like Wednesday's 2-1 loss to the Flyers, where the forecheck disappeared in the third, almost as if the team was demoralized that great work in the first 40 minutes was sabotaged by Brian Boucher.
The Penguins visit this afternoon wearing their baby-blue retro thirds. I don't mind this, because one thing I actually do like about the Islanders' RBK (vowels not included) system is the emphasis on orange in the "away" whites.
As with every team that is both rebuilding with low current expectations yet showing promise that exceeds those expectations, there are both glass-half-full and glass-half-empty angles. Before I touch on those, though, if you haven't seen it, you might want to check out Scott Gordon unloading about his team's failings, in what Ken of Okposo Net described was Gordon "as livid as we've ever seen him." Enjoy:
Good times. All hot-under-the-collar aside, I think Gordon's underlying point is right: Monday night was not a case of the same ol' flaws from this team, certainly not a third-period panic from a team that has trouble handling a lead.
This young Islanders team, without its captain (and legit powerplay asset), has lost three of its last four. The lone win was an ugly one ... By losing Monday, they again cost themselves a chance to pass or keep pace with the Flyers and Rangers in the Atlantic, not to mention Buffalo, Atlanta, Montreal and Tampa Bay in the East ... With that loss, the Isles fell to 7-4-3 in games when scoring first, an alarming trend that blends with the late-lead problem that is reflected in three separate blown 3-0 leads ... Announced attendance Monday was 12,687, which sadly is a "good" crowd for this year, but perhaps not alarming for a November "premium" game in a bad economy with a team whose future remains in the dark.
This young Islanders team, with a blueline corps to die with, has exceeded anyone's expectations thus far, keeping itself in a crowd of nine Eastern Conference teams separated by four points ... Giving us a enticing hint that Scott Gordon is on to something with this "playing a certain way" forecheck, the underskilled (or depth shallow, if you must) Islanders have grabbed the first goal in 14 of 25 games ... While third-period losses are an issue that dates back to last season, well, I don't have much here except I get the sense things have improved and will continue to improve as the Islanders get better players who can execute their forecheck for 60 minutes. Baby steps. ... Attendance is expected to be better for today's matinee, and the economy and Lighthouse uncertainty are two factors that, when resolved, hopefully pave the way for more fans coming through the turnstiles. Hopefully.
Nothing to Do with Glasses, Full or Otherwise -- But Something about Two Stars
The Islanders have John Tavares, and his consistent production is a welcome, long overdue addition. The Penguins have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, a painful reminder that doubling up on elite talents completely changes the game.
Witness some Fun With Numbers: Both the Pens (5-5-0) and Islanders (4-4-2) have the same number of points from their last 10 games, but that obscures the real story: Since losing four in a row without Malkin, the Penguins have won five of six since he returned to the lineup. Malkin has 8 points in those 6 games. Crosby, who had just one point in that four-game losing streak, also has 8 points in those 6 games.
Tavares is not quite like either of those talents, and if the islanders keep playing this way and avoiding catastrophic injuries, they won't be getting another superstar in the 2010 draft. Hell, no team is likely to replicate the Crosby/Malkin 1-2 punch. Nonetheless, the underlying moral remains: This first-quarter has been great, but the big picture is building "toward better days, [playing a] certain way" -- and that will require the presence of some players who aren't here yet.
Prediction: Some guys look like they ate too much turkey, and some guys look like they used yesterday to recommit to their career.
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Item: NHL Network, in need of holiday programming Saturday, will re-air the Roloson 58-save game and Ron Tugnutt's 70-save performance from 1991.
I will so record this -- but not for Roloson's saves, which are fresh in my mind. Rather, any chance to see those epically beautiful Nordiques jerseys in action is not to be missed. Tugnutt's game (vs. the Bruins) airs at 12 EST; Roloson's at 2 p.m. Long live the 'diques! (Wait ... that doesn't work in English as a rallying cry, does it? Still: Long live the 'diques!)