7 p.m. EST | [some London bank of Buffalo] Arena | MSG+2 (twice the plus!)
Sabre-wielders: Die by the Blade
"The biggest thing is that our identity needs to be 'relentless.' For us to be successful, we've always got to be backing up each other. And I don't mean in a fighting way. I mean in a skating way, in a forechecking way. ... If we're playing the way we can, at the end of the day, we're a hard team to play against, because we try not to let the opposition make plays with time."
>>Scott Gordon, as reported by Katie Strang (emphasis mine)
Remember the Montreal game? Not the decent one, but the awful one? Yeah, me neither -- I tried to toss it out, and suggest you do, too. They get a mulligan. Still, I've been thinking about why the Habs gave the Islanders fits -- twice -- and I'm wondering if part of it comes down to team speed.
At the heart of Gordon's system, the Islanders try to take away other teams' time, which results in some hilarious opposition mistakes. But speed can help a team evade Islanders pressure. The Habs have it, and the Sabres do, too. Tonight should be interesting. The Sabres sound much healthier than they were four days ago, and just as the Islanders played the Habs much tighter in the rematch (an OT loss), Buffalo should do the same.
As much as win streaks alter expectations -- and why shouldn't they? We're fans, aren't we? -- my expectations remain guarded because the Isles are a young, developing team, and among their victims on this four-game win streak were two teams battling the flu bug, plus the Rangers, a rival in the middle of losing 6 of 8 games (2-5-1). I know. Here, giver your Ranger friend/brother a tissue. Tonight begins 9 of 10 games on the road; the challenges don't stop coming.
Though the Islanders blew out the Sabres Saturday, their formula remains the same: Play Gordon's system, get key saves, stay healthy. Kill penalties better than the other guys.
Speaking of the Isles PK: The Sabres did "extensive work" on their powerplay in practice to better prepare their 21st-ranked unit to crack the Islanders defenses.
Meanwhile, Botta just took up the theme of the Islanders' continued faceoff success, but there's more to those numbers than just overall percentages: Richard Park's 57% is impressive, but it's flat-out amazing when you consider he's 22-23 on shorthanded faceoffs. (Faceoff % on the PK is typically much lower, since five bodies are better than four when it comes to winning the puck off the draw.) Meanwhile, Frans Nielsen is 14-6 on powerplay faceoffs. It's early, but the video work of Scott Allen that Botta wrote about is a sign this is quite sustainable.
This is already the third Sabres-Islanders meeting. Whereas one was a (perhaps illness-aided) blowout, the previous one got out of hand for Buffalo thanks to Dwayne Roloson's worst performance of the year. Martin Biron seeks to duplicate Saturday's shutout of his old team with victory #201.
The difference today from the previous two meetings? Well, the Islanders are in a groove and carrying the confidence that comes with it:
"The guys have been on the same page now for a little bit and we're starting to see some results. I don't think that we've changed a ton of how we've played, but I think that the team has a lot of confidence."
Maybe they haven't changed how they're trying to play, but during this four-game streak they've certainly improved their execution. As always, though, that begins with goaltending. Against both Buffalo and Edmonton, despite their mojo the Islanders actually came out to tepid starts. But Biron and Roloson held the fort until Operation Gordon took effect.
I'll say it one more time for enjoyment: Four wins in a row. Tonight, does the "Drive for Five" at long last come to fruition?
Prediction: Ryan Miller doesn't get pulled.