Islanders Gameday: Here lieth a declining champion

Det-wheel_medium               Nyi-4stick_medium
Detroit Red Wings (
23-15-6, 9th/W) at New York Islanders (19-19-8, 10th/E)
7 p.m. | Nassau [
gloriously unsponsored] Veterans Mem. Coliseum | MSG+
Winging it through mostly thick and thick:
Winging it in Motown

"For a team already distracted by success, these incidents have given us the crutches we were looking for, and definitely do not need. ... We know every signal, every sign; we see our demise in everything we do. Like a starlet at the morning mirror, everything we see is a haunting omen of breakdown.

... Like a once-rich man desperate to be rich again, we have gotten impatient, spoiled by our own success. The relentless discipline that got us here now bores us; everything must happen fast. ...

In the fourth season after three Stanley Cups, a team is changed. Sated by success, we have different expectations, and the motivation and feelings we get from a game have changed with them. Joy becomes obligation, satisfaction turns to relief, and the purpose of winning becomes less to win, and more not to lose."

>>excerpts from Chapter 1 ("Monday") of The Game, by Ken Dryden

Dryden's fantastic book, which has aged really well, better describes our own mid-'80s Islanders than it does the current Red Wings. For personal and traditional reasons, I don't even consider the Wings' last 15 years a "dynasty" (I grew up knowing that term as a string of uninterrupted championships). But whatever you call it, it's something impressive.

More importantly, the Red Wings' run faces the same challenges of any dynasty: The stars that lead it age, and success has unavoidable effects. To combat these, the Wings have done the only thing they can do: Groom and introduce new blood to supplement the stars who have already won. Keep the hunger as strong as possible. The question is, with all the other forces going against repeat success, is that new blood enough?

The salary cap has finally caught up with the Wings: No longer can Mike Illitch's fortune ensure a huge gap between them and most peers (though spending to the cap is still a luxury). The cap-necessitated focus on drafting and player development means the Wings have many more competitors who know what the Wings knew throughout the '90s. While reputation earned the Wings an under-market shot at Marian Hossa, it wasn't enough to keep him around past one year. Each year, the advantages of the pre-lockout era diminish. If longtime Islanders fans could pass on one lesson to Detroit counterparts it would be this: Enjoy it for what it was, because it will never be the same again.

 

The result is a bitter pill for some, but I've never subscribed to the sports marketing theory that a sport needs a dominant team for people to bandwagon around and/or join in communal hate. Maybe those people are better for business, but that's not how I enjoy sports. I like it this way. As level a playing field as possible. Require every small scratched-out advantage to earn your way to the top. At season's end, do it all over again.

I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy one side effect of this: That now, more than ever, it appears the Islanders in perpetuity will claim the last truly uninterrupted dynasty the NHL will know. But far more than that, in a 30-team league I find it far more entertaining if teams' fans can hope for a turnaround sooner rather than later. Here's hoping it doesn't require the luck of landing a Crosby/Malkin double to knock a dominant champion off its perch.

 

Less Flowery, More Here and Now

The Wings are having a comparatively rough year, yet they're still lying dangerously in the weeds: Twelfth place overall and 52 points in 44 games is nothing to drop a Claude at. Without a remarkable spate of injuries -- ah, but isn't that part of the champion's bargain? -- who knows how high up they would be. Despite my talk of their inevitable decline, I've learned not to expect it in any given year, including this one.

Henrik Zetterberg and Dan Cleary have finally returned, but get a load of this 08-09 Islanders-esque injury list: Tomas Holmstrom (broken foot), Jonathan Ericsson (knee), Niklas Kronwall (sprained MCL), Jason Williams (leg), Johan Franzen (torn ACL) and Andreas Lilja (PCS).

Zetterberg and Holmstrom's injuries just feel like those that hit a team's stars after multiple long playoff runs. Kronwall's feels like karma for a guy who likes to leave his feet like some such Phaneuf.

 

The Matchup: It Turns on Who's in Net

The special teams and shot mismatch is the usual for recent Islanders opponents (though for once, the Wings 16.8% powerplay is nearly as bad as the 16.0% Isles). But while the Wings have the ghost of Chris Osgood and a finally stabilizing Jimmy Howard (the almost-certain starter) in net, the Islanders chances these days seem to boil down to one thing: Is Dwayne Roloson playing? Tonight, I assume so and certainly hope so.

I understand the need to get Rick DiPietro out there to see if that engine can hum again. That's a cost of doing business that can't be avoided. But if they're serious about winning as much as otherwise possible this year, tonight must belong to Roloson. He knows the West, he's handled Detroit's danger before. While this week is a light schedule, there is opportunity for DiPietro over the holiday weekend. And while the Islanders goaltending coaches talk of the difference between practice and games -- I get that, I do -- it's not like a week of more practices is going to hold him back.

Besides, does anyone expect a repeat of Joey MacDonald's 42-save luck from last March? (He played great, he did. But as in most shutouts, multiple posts conspired that night to create an unexpected outcome.)

The Morning Line: A Roster Decision

Be honest with me (thankfully, you guys never have trouble doing that): Since the Islanders need a roster move to accommodate the return to health of Sean Bergenheim and, heh, Rick DiPietro, what would you do right now?

The coach loves Nate Thompson, because he's one of those guys a coach loves: Knows him from way back, trusts him, can count on him to jump on grenades when few will. Even if his skillset makes him a non-threat offensively, and his penalty killing is courageous but, frankly, not as accomplished as his more talented teammates. (Note: That's 4-on-5. At 3-on-5, when you need a guy to repeatedly take a bullet, he's your man.)

That's not to get you to say "Waive Thompson!" although some of you will. It's to point out that if somehow Thompson is the guy, then the coach will have either swallowed hard or been overruled. More likely, in my book (which will be moot within hours of this post):

  • 60% - A player's injury (:cough: Witt) is "worse than expected" and ends up on IR [UPDATE: We have a winner! Witt on IR. Oh, the shenanigans.]
  • 15% - Tambellini receives a magical conditioning assignment or outright waive
  • 15% - Thompson receives same
  • 10% - Meyer receives same, leaving the Isles with three goalies and six defensemen

All of this will be clear by late morning, but it's worth noting that Scott Gordon didn't think Brendan Witt's calf injury was serious, yet he hilariously didn't "want to just give a player away." I mean really: I admire the team-building and loyalty to his players, but outside of maaaaybe Tambellini, who's claiming these guys?

Me, I'm just happy to see Sean Bergenheim back, and I'm looking forward to finding out who sits in his place.

Prediction: If Roloson and Bergenheim play, the Isles maintain NHL-style quasi-.500.

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