[Update: Tampa Bay has claimed Nate Thompson off waivers. Wow.]
Tomas Vokoun is on one of those Vokoun runs. He was brilliant in shutting out Atlanta a few nights ago, and last night allowed only one goal to the Devils. Fortunately, the Panthers offense is also on one of those runs: Their lone goal against the Thrashers was flukey, and last night they came up empty against Martin Brodeur. Dem Cats slumpin'.
I have a dirty secret (alright, I have several -- but what's it to you?): I like the Southeast Division. (In the tradition of old divisional names, can we call it the Esposito Division? Phil and his ability to woo mysterious Japanese investors is probably most responsible for its existence.) I like the Southeast because they play some wide-open hockey -- the Panthers' 1-0 win over Atlanta excluded -- and, if you exchanged their attendance figures and franchise histories with those of the Adams Division, you'd like them, too.
If you recall Islanders-Thrashers matchups in the Scott Gordon-John Anderson era, you know they're crazy goalfests, usually to our benefit. The kind that would make Jacques Lemaire quit. The flip-side is that Isles-Panthers games this season in the Gordon-Peter DeBoer era have been to the Panthers' benefit. A 7-1 disaster in December and a come-from-behind 4-4 Panthers shootout win a month earlier.
And as if we needed more motivation, this is a playoff fight, folks: A Panthers regulation win gives them an identical record to the Isles. Their special teams are, no surprise, better. But you have to like the way the Isles are playing.
Jiggsy Back in the House
Jiggs McDonald is back, but with a catch: He's filling in for former Quebec Nordique, Sabre, Ranger and Panther Randy Moller on the Panthers radio broadcast. I'm hoping you can listen to him at this feed.
Unless you were in the morgue (if so: Yes, you landed the plane safely), you know Andy Sutton received a two-game suspension for his check from behind on Pascal Dupuis. Word around everywhere is to expect fleet-footed Dustin Kohn to be called up and get some NHL action. That prospect excites me. Will he be paired with ol' Bridgeport buddy Andrew MacDonald? Will he get the "ease in with Streit" treatment?
Islanders 2009-10 record without Andy Sutton: 2-4-0. With Sutton: 20-16-8. Note: When Sutton returned from injury Dec. 14, the Panthers trounced the Isles 7-1.
Transparent with Customers? Not the NHL's Job, Apparently
For the record, I am not opposed to Sutton's suspension. And before I go off, the NHL -- out of business necessity, I reckon -- has done a very nice job giving info to fans in the new media department.
But: If you want confirmation on just how much of an oblivious world the NHL's hockey ops lives in -- and of course they're not the only business that does this -- get a load of their official statement about the suspension. As always, it is "for an incident in game #xxx." They name the on-ice penalty, but they never describe what happened (check from behind) nor expand upon their rationale (e.g. Check all that apply: we saw blood, there was injury, it looked bad, it was dangerous, it happened on Hockey Night in Canada, Don Cherry phoned us, the guy was hit "real hard," it happened to a star, etc.). No quote from Colin Campbell or any such clown. As always, we are left to watch the video ... and guess which criteria are at play for how many games. I'm not asking for a 20-page Supreme Court ruling; but a few specifics would be nice. A hint of some standard to follow.
Never mind that we are the customers, that it is our money through tickets, TV, merchandise, (not to mention daily promotion of their product through sites such as this) that supports this league despite its many attempts to get us to throw up our hands in disgust. No, we don't deserve an answer. Maybe when there is a controversy, or when a reporter is lucky enough to get some choice Campbell quotes, then we get something like "We treat each incident as separate" and get another horrifying glimpse into just how bass-ackward the NHL's Ministry of Random Discipline and Rare Explanations is. Otherwise, it is none of our business. We're just fans. Just know that a player was hurt, a player was suspended for an incident in game #738, and good luck guessing the next decision.
Simply: Explaining and clarifying rules, suspension rulings, regulations -- and anything else that affects the game, be it salary cap or waivers or rosters or in-game rules or replays -- is something the NHL owes its fans. It's also good business, because it encourages buy-in as opposed to resentment. But Campbell's handlers don't see it that way, or can't get him to play along without Ron McLean holding his hand.
Nate Thompson Says Thanks
I don't think many doubt Nate Thompson's courage and willingness to do anything for the team. When I think of Thompson, I think of a guy who fights when no one else (outside of Tim Jackman) will, and a guy who mans the suicidal top of the triangle on 5-on-3s, throwing his body in front of point-blank slapshots in the slot. This sounds harsh, but: There is a place for guys who in that situation are willing to sacrifice bodily health to stop a goal when the odds for a goal are stacked -- particularly if it's better for the team's next 4 to 6 weeks that no one more important break their foot.
But it's a cutthroat game at this level, where the top percentile of the world's elite play. Many of us are hard on Thompson's continued place in the lineup not because of his character, but because his place was always destined to be bumped once this lineup got deeper. And this lineup is now deeper.
Still, part of me always appreciates guys like him. Their presence and sacrifice often keeps more naturally talented teammates honest -- a subtle reminder that you're lucky, and you need to bust your tail to make the most of this -- which is why coaches like them. Coaches are often overly loyal to those they know, but Thompson is a coach's favorite because he'll do the dirty work, he'll do whatever is needed, no questions asked.
When the Isles claimed him off waivers from Boston, the word was the Bruins were disappointed because they saw those traits in him, too. Is it possible the defensively oriented Alaskan would be a better fit for a system like Claude Julien's? Maybe. But in Gordon Land, his limited skillset has stuck out more over time. On the penalty kill, guys like Frans Nielsen and Sean Bergenheim simply get better results.
Still, I've always looked at Thompson like this: Would I rather have a one-trick enforcer sitting on the bench, getting five minutes a night while waiting for the chance to do the ritual dance with the other team's enforcer? Or would I rather have a guy who can skate, take a faceoff, drop the gloves when things get silly, and kill a penalty, even if his aggregate stats show him to be less effective at that than a high-end player? The third option is having a player better than either one -- and that's where the Isles are now, and that's why this is a good sign for the rebuild.
"I have the utmost respect for Scott Gordon and Garth Snow for giving me an opportunity in the first place. Whatever happens, I'll just keep working hard and do whatever it takes to make it back to the NHL and show what I can do."
...Garth Snow: "Nate's played well for us. He's a good person and he's been a high-character guy for us. This by no means means that he won't be back with us at some point. It's just a move we had to make."
Best of luck to him in Bridgeport or wherever the road leads. And if and when he comes back, hopefully he brings just the sandpaper the Isles need at that time.
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Prediction: There will be goals. Lots. And Jiggsy sounds just a liiiiittle bit more excited after Josh Bailey's goal than his listeners would like.
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The Panthers sometimes make me think of Roger Nielsen, who died seven years ago this June. Was it really that long ago?! Too soon, too soon.
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I have said this before, I will say this again: Donny (Whale4ever), who runs the SBN's Panthers site Litter Box Cats, is a cool cat -- and a legit Whalers (R.I.P.) fan with some stories. Imagine having your team ripped from your hands, then imagine carrying the torch in a "non-traditional" market from back in the salad days of John Vanbiesbrouck, through the thick and thin of an owner under the spell of Mike Keenan.
I'm just saying, fans who have been tortured by owners have a few things to share over a beer.