I actually began this preview with a reflection on fighting's nebulous place in the NHL -- then wisely (I think) chucked that into a separate post below after it veered off into its own dissertation. If you find fighting in the NHL to be as entangled in myth and vague intentions as I do (and I don't know how you wouldn't, if you're honest), you might check it out. I don't expect agreement, but the ill-defined topic is worthy of discussion.
Anyway, that topic naturally came up because today, for the first time since Oct. 17 (Joel Rechlicz's fifth and last NHL game of this season), the Islanders are employing a pure enforcer. Happy birthday Trevor Gillies, and happy 2nd NHL game.
There are three evident reasons the Islanders made this move: One, the Flyers employ a few players who like to mix it up for effect. Two, 4th-liner Tim Jackman, who normally answers the bell, is out injured (as is Brendan Witt) and Nate Thompson is in Tampa Bay. Third, the Islanders have slowly let the checking side of their game recede in recent weeks.
That is, incidentally, why a pugilist who can skate is a nice yet rare commodity: It's good to have a guy who knows on every shift he is supposed to throw checks, as a subtle reminder to teammates that checking is, you now, part of the game. That said, from Scott Gordon's history and Trevor "not Clark" Gillies' pro record through the eve of his 31st birthday, I don't expect him to see much ice.
The bigger question, not known as of this posting, is who sits?
It's some bit of irony that Jeff Tambellini can't get in the lineup for a team with the 26th-ranked offense, yet Gillies can. The bombshell move would be to finally give struggling John Tavares the Rookie "Different Perspective" Scratch. The easy move would be to give a rest to Blake Comeau, who is most familiar with sitting and whose job description theoretically includes physical play. The interchangeable fourth-line parts move would be to sit Richard Park -- a respected veteran and faceoff taker -- or Jon Sim, one of the few Islanders who's willing to fight in the trenches night after night.
No one performed that well in the last two games, but based on tradition and with all typical respect for veterans, I fully expect Comeau to take the fall.
The Rest of the Lineup
Gordon was not inclined to mix up lines after the Capitals blowout. Will he change after the tepid showing in Raleigh? And much stems on how he chooses to use Gillies, a player he had briefly in AHL Providence. His history is to use enforcers sparingly, which means other players take turns double shifting with the more regular fourth-line guys.
So much depends on whether the Islanders return to forcing play 5-on-5 and, theoretically, drawing penalties. When they press early and steal a goal while the other team is on its heels, they have runs like they had from Dec. 23 until this mini-streak of losses. When they don't, trouble appears.
With such disparity in powerplay efficiencies (23.1% vs. 16.1%), it's hard not to see the outcome of this New NHL game turning on special teams. Unfortunately, the Flyers can afford more dumb penalties than the Isles can.
Josh Bailey, who has cooled (1 assist, 3 shots in his last 5 games), is still 16th overall in the NHL in shooting percentage at 16.9%. Now what do you suppose he should do more of today?
Matt Duchene, with two points last night, now leads John Tavares in the rookie scoring race by three points. Aside from my suspicion that Tavares is playing through some lingering aches and pains, I still can't take this too seriously because most rookie races ebb and flow with consequent panic and hype. For my Calder, talk to me in April.
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In the East's cluster of mediocrity, these teams are still separated by just one point and six spots in the standings. So every point counts, and all that.
Prediction: Bergenheim scores, because this is a Bergenheim kind of game. Oh, and Gillies fights somebody and we all feel so much better.