After a couple of days between games, now the really crazy part of December's schedule begins, against a team that is still disorganized under a new coach and, frankly, ripe for the kill.
[Note: This game is on Versus in the U.S. Apologies for the copy/paste error earlier.]
The Flyers are playing on back-to-back nights (the Isles get that pleasure tomorrow in Toronto), and while last night's 3-1 loss in Montreal showed mild signs of improvement over Peter Laviolette's debut, they still have miles to go. Travis's recap at Broad Street Hockey reminds me of the early days of Scott Gordon, with lots of talk of systems and the challenge of transforming a team overnight. Watching last night's game, the number of times the Flyers announcers said "Laviolette's system" -- as if trying to decipher a teacher's methods with an unruly classroom -- told me the Philly team is still going through those new coach pains we know too well.
But while a new system and new forms of blueline pinching can bring initial chaos, a team with talent can still gut out a win on any given night. The Islanders better be ready. They better bring it. If they get the first goal, they better go for the kill. A slot in the standings is at stake. [Continued after the jump, with a look at faceoffs...]
For a moment I thought to myself, "Wait...do you remember any such chaos when Lavi took over the Islanders?" Followed immediately by: "Of course you don't!" Not only was Laviolette's 11-2-1 2001-02 start this decade's greatest Islanders run (still), it followed a summer hiring, when he had plenty of time to plan and work in the new blood who would lead that team.
I'm really intrigued by what Laviolette might be able to do, though. If that team is to reach the promised land with this core, they've pretty much wed themselves to doing it with Laviolette. Even this season, there is still plenty of time -- more time than when Pittsburgh brought in Dan Bylsma -- and the Flyers have legit talent in a lot of places that Laviolette should be able to employ in a cohesive whole. The one thing Laviolette doesn't have is a motivated-by-something-to-prove Chris Osgood or a pure talent like Cam Ward. In the end, my expectation for the Flyers will remain as it has been for the last 18 years, revolving around one question: Can this goaltending take them all the way?
But enough about those punks in Philadelphia. There is another proud flyer of the Orange banner to think about...
Goaltending: Dwayne Roloson isn't the officially declared #1 goalie, but he's been playing and starting like he is. Still, tonight is a great chance to put Martin Biron back in, to hopefully get revenge on his old team while allowing "58-save" Dwayne Roloson to haunt Toronto tomorrow night. The last NYI-PHI meeting -- John Stevens' final win as Flyers coach -- didn't go so well, but not because of Biron's play. True to form*, the Islanders gave him no goal support after Brian Boucher stood on his head for two periods. Yes, that game on Long Island remains the Flyers' only win in their last ten games. Please don't let tonight be their second.
*In fact, among goalies who have played five or more games, Biron has the worst 5-on-5 goal support in the league, with just 1.25 GF/60 minutes (5-on-5). In contrast, the Isles give Roloson 2.88. But the record isn't all on Biron's teammates (unless they're tanking the PK): On the PK, Biron is allowing 11.08 goals per 60 minutes (of 4-on-5), while Roloson is allowing just 5.43.
Lines, Damn Lines and More Statistics: Otherwise, during this relative period of health, the lines remain the same. Jack Hillen is banged up but will play, while Andy Sutton (soon) and Doug Weight remain on the shelf (not soon), and Rob Schremp Hockey and Blake Comeau continue to sport the yellow jerseys.
What are the Islanders missing without Sutton and out-for-the-year Radek Martinek? Well, two of the 20 best defensive defensemen through the first quarter by James Mirtle's metrics, but also the two most prolific shot blockers on the team. At 5-on-5 this year, Sutton has blocked 7.4 shots per 60 minutes, while Martinek blocked 6.8. Witt has also blocked 6.8/60. There is some warranted thought that a lot of blocked shots in no way indicates you're a good team -- if you don't have the puck much, you face (and block) more shots, and if you don't have the puck you're probably the weaker team. But on an individual level, it's hard to not value a guy who can get in the shooting lanes, particularly in the anti-obstruction (hallelujah!) post-lockout NHL.
Faceoffs: Not Just a Crappy Travolta/Cage
Since we're wading into team stats, how's that once vaunted, later de-vaunted faceoff acumen coming along? The Islanders are currently 19th, at 49%. Not as good as they were in the early-going when we were in awe of their video work, not as bad as they were when they came crashing down from that high. But all of them are above 53.9% at home, while only Nielsen is even above 50% on the road.
As with any consideration of faceoff proficiency, we should remember that shorthanded faceoffs are harder (fewer teammates on the ice means less help to "win" the puck after it leaves the faceoff dot), so keep in mind that Nielsen, Park and Thompson's numbers come under more difficult circumstances than Tavares and Bailey, who never take PK draws. (Okay fine: Tavares has taken 5, Bailey has taken 16. Never say "never.") But for the shorthanded go-to guys, Park has taken 91 shorthanded draws (41-49), while Thompson has taken 45 (18-27) and Nielsen has taken 27 (12-15).
Anyway you slice it, Josh Bailey still needs work at the dot. But he's 20, so he still officially has slack from me.
That's the story for now. Let's. Go. Islanders.
Prediction: It's been a whole five games since we tasted OT (the Roloson Miracle in Toronto). It's time we renewed acquaintances, and it's time Kyle Okposo's post luck changes.