If the Isles couldn't beat the Habs, at least Mother Nature is giving them a good kick in the teeth.
This isn't good. The Islanders powerplay continues to look anemic, the penalty kill continues to look lost, and while Jaroslav Halak made some stellar saves tonight, to call it a 40-save shutout is to flatter the quality of most of the Islanders' shots, which generally came from outside, through zero traffic, or -- when point blank -- with an eye for Halak's torso. Halak played quite well; the Islanders shot quite poorly. It was a shutout earned by both parties.
At the other end, Martin Biron should probably have a complex right about now, because his teammates have scored 12 times at 5-on-5 for him all year, while he and the boys have conceded 25. The increasingly disastrous penalty kill has been particularly awful for him, too, conceding 18 times, including all three goals tonight.
More to come about the game, but first a rant...
Best 'One-Trick Enforcers are Rather Worthless' Moment of the Night
Yeah, take away the instigator rule and I guess you could say six-minute man Georges Laraque could have attacked Andy Sutton for having the audacity to throw clean hip checks at the blueline. Instead, Laraque challenged Sutton to fight at the end of a (Sutton) shift, and #25 wisely declined. It's just not worth it and it's not necessary. Sutton wasn't throwing head shots and he wasn't endangering people's careers. He was throwing the hard bodychecks that the Don Cherrys and Mike "Strawman Argument" Milburys of the world pretend would somehow disappear if you looked into hits to the head.
The way you deal with that is by hitting back, not by pretending a guy who serves an actual hockey function should sit for five minutes just so a guy who serves no purpose other than sitting for five minutes can try to pummel him.
(Sorry, if I hear one more delusional hockey fan claim that the desire to look at concussions comes from people who "want hitting out of the game" -- or as Milbury called his straw men last night, "crunchy granola types," I'm going to flip. These people aren't worth listening to, they're impossible to debate because they package their outrage in an argument against a foe that doesn't exist (hello Straw!), and they don't even know what they're defending other than their own fear of change. Tell me you don't think the league can enforce rules right. Tell me you simply like concussions the way they are. Tell me you like MMA. Just don't tell me there are serious fans trying to remove hitting from the game, and don't tell me -- nor Andy Sutton -- that addressing headshots would remove the ability to body check.
Last night on Hot Stove Milbury actually compared debilitating brain injuries to his own knee replacement: "It happens." If one had anything to do with the other, 30 years ago the league would have mandated titanium orbs around every player's knee instead of requiring every new player wear a helmet. But see -- stop me if you've heard this -- turns out your brain is actually a pretty big deal. Even a bigger deal than a knee, shockingly. As Milbury demonstrates, being deficient in both departments. Talk about a village missing its idiot.)
Whoa, wait, where was I? Oh yeah: Laraque. '80s goon entertainment be damned (I was there, it was fun while it lasted), these one-trick enforcers simply aren't much of a factor anymore. They only fight each other and they bring nothing else to the table as hockey players -- not at this level. I've long since accepted you can't really disentangle fighting from the NHL game. I've also long since concluded it makes more sense for hockey players to fight other hockey players, rather than having Designated Testosterone Release junkies dress up as NHL hockey players to do nothing but give up 5-on-5 goals and fight each other to justify their place for five minutes of ice time a night.
So given that philosophical stance, yes, I was quite pleased to see Laraque's call go unanswered. Talk to me when Sutton does something worth fighting about, and then I'll call him out if he doesn't "answer the bell."
The Powerplay: Still Weightless
So the Isles held John Tavares out of an early powerplay because, as they told Hockey Night in Canada, he wasn't moving his feet. He looked a little more alive later, but he was just one of several on the unit who didn't create enough traffic nor generating enough dangerous shots. It should be noted that the best chance -- a Halak blocker-side robbery of Matt Moulson -- was set up by a great Tavares pass.
It's a tired refrain that the Isles extra-man unit misses Doug Weight, but they do. Rob Schremp (6:18 on the PP), who looked good on the powerplay a few games ago, hasn't helped create much the last few nights. With some lineup decisions around the corner, I wonder how much longer he'll get if he doesn't ignite something in that role. But it's hard to pick on him when no one is scoring.
The Penalty Kill: What's Up?
With one-sixth of the game spent on the Islanders powerplay, ice time was low for some low-skill guys like Jon Sim and Brendan Witt. Witt only saw 10:35 of ice time, including 2:21 of PK time. He was on for the first goal (not his fault -- in fact, his last-dictch dive almost bailed out his teammates), but the other two goals were scored against the Sutton and Jack Hillen pairing, with Richard Park and Nate Thompson also out there.
So I'll ask what I asked in the game thread: What do you make of the PK? It was pretty solid the first month of the season. It's been barely above 50% (14 goals in 31 opportunities) in the last 8 games. So do you make of it a slump? Good luck early in the year meets bad luck now? Or are Park and Thompson and the blueliners behind them not as determined now that the early season hunger or job competition has receded? Or have the "most important penalty killers" -- the goalies -- just not stolen saves like they need to?
I didn't find Biron terribly at fault on any of the goals tonight, though I am still waiting to see the game-stealing form that tells me, "Oh yeah, you're a #1." I did find the Canadiens PP unit -- buoyed by the return of quarterback Andrei Markov, who potted two -- moved the puck around entirely too easily.
Scott Gordon's Take
Here's Scott Gordon, responding to questions about his special teams, which couldn't handle the Habs' approach, as well as the play of Biron. Gordon said "at 5-on-5, I don't think they were in the same ballgame" -- and if you look at the Corsi tally for the night, you'd think he has a point: Not a single Islander was on the ice for more 5-on-5 shot attempts against Biron than shot attempts at Halak.
It's been brought up before, and it was brought up last night -- an amusing reset of my jinx-defying "surely they won't go 10 games without a win again" -- so it's worth noting the Isles are 3-6 so far this month. Worse than any Julian calendar-marked demarcations, though, is the fact they've been shut out twice and are 1-3 at home, losing by a combined 12 goals in those three losses. For the brave fans who drove out in a blizzard to endure the invasion of Habs fans last night, that's a crappy reward.
The Islanders are still a team that's relying on a lot of young, green players to be their best players, while looking to some long-in-the-tooth and/or marginal vets to fill out the rest. Two of their top four defensemen are Jack Hillen and Andrew MacDonald, which is a lot to ask. Not a single player who is looked upon to score has been around the block in this league. This is the recipe for some pain that, I think, most of us expected. As luck (and tradition?) would have it, we're getting a heavy dose of that pain this holiday season.
But one day Kyle Okposo will score again, Park will bury his shorthanded breakaway, Moulson will return to putting those point-blank shots inside the post instead of into the goalie, and Frans Nielsen will bury his chance in front instead of pass to no one. That's the idea, anyway.