Islanders mini-streaks: The thin line between win and loss

Some afternoon links, followed by a theory about the Islanders since the Olympic break:

After the Olympic break, the Islanders stole a win from Chicago (with a bit of goaltending and a bit of luck), then promptly sandwiched a three-game regulation losing streak and a three-game winning streak around a shootout loss. As much as we talk about the clear difference in talent -- or at least the stage of talent development -- between the Islanders and many opponents, the two streaks illustrate the adjustments that can leave you on either side of the thin line between winning and losing.

After the jump, a quick look back at the last seven games, which when taken in sum show a team capable of stealing points from anyone -- as long as all 19 players are firing.

Special Teams

The easiest difference on the stat sheet is special teams. I whined about those at what now looks like the perfect time -- right before the Islanders went on a run of scoring a powerplay goal in four consecutive games and conceding zero by opponents in the last three. But I know any game could have gone differently with a slight change in luck: Dwayne Roloson could have missed a crucial PK save last night, and maybe he saves that deflection off Mark Streit's stick on the PK in Philadelphia. This stuff can change in a blink.

That said, powerplay goals conceded were the difference in the one-goal losses to the Flyers and Bruins, while keeping clean sheets on the PK were the difference in the wins over the Devils and the Canucks. Though it's a short sample, the adjustments the coaches made appear to have helped. Including the shootout loss to St. Louis (PK: 5 for 6), the Islanders have allowed one PP goal on their last 19 kills. And of course, shorthanded goals by Sean Bergenheim and Richard Park against New Jersey and Toronto were huge turning points.

As were, against Vancouver, the kind of aggressive play that draws early penalties. Canucks coach Alain Vigneault:

"We knew this team was playing real well," he said. "They had won their last two games by being what you saw tonight, being really aggressive on the forecheck, with their Ds involved in the play. I think what put us on our heels a bit were the penalties that we took in the first period. You're fighting a two-goal deficit and then you are fighting a three-goal deficit."

 

Effort and Execution Make Luck

The 6-3 loss to Atlanta was awful, but it was awful thanks to some very specific moments. Scott Gordon, ticked after the loss, even pointed out (and in this instance, I don't think he was practicing Coaching PR) that the Islanders' energy was there, they just made dumb mistakes. And they were dumb mistakes -- the kind so huge they almost automatically result in goals against.

You can play a "good effort" and system game for 60 minutes and ensure the outcome is the result of a coin flip or perhaps an excellent individual play. But if you make the specific mistakes (bad line change, blown coverage, bad turnover) the Isles made against Atlanta, you've taken the coin flip out of the equation. Your margin of error is gone. You end up with a three-goal loss.

Boston and Philadelphia were both better efforts with fewer mistakes, but against the Bruins came one poor turnover (and one incredibly bad bounce) and a failure to convert on a five-minute powerplay; against the Flyers came at least one bad penalty, perhaps two, that put a faltering PK unit on the ice for the winning goal. Either of those games could have swung with some better luck, but when your margin is so thin luck doesn't often come to the rescue.

*  *  *

So what changed in the shootout loss against St. Louis and the three wins over New Jersey, Toronto and Vancouver?

An escalated urgency throughout the lineup, mixed with smart hockey from top to bottom. These games have lacked the backbreaking mistake, and they've added a level of defensive determination and discipline that wasn't fully there the prior three games: There's John Tavares sliding to block a first-period shot last night; there's Richard Park sliding behind Roloson just in case; there's every forward determined to battle for the puck rather than chase it in the defensive zone; there's Freddy Meyer being a physical beast in all three zones. The discipline with the lead came in the form of not panicking in the defensive zone, not merely dumping the puck out at every opportunity, but actually gaining the neutral zone when possible and applying pressure on the trailing opponent when the opening was there.

This team isn't overly skilled, and their existing skill isn't ripe yet -- we know that. So wins can only come not via a three-minute flash of Sedin-like all-world skill but via goaltending like Roloson's and 60 minutes of unending effort applied to smart hockey. It's not a method that can get an understocked and underdeveloped team to win consistently over a full season -- in fact, it leads to a heartbreaking 11 one-goal regulation losses and nine more via OT or shootout. But it is a method that, when everything is clicking and even five posts against Vancouver doesn't deter you, can produce little spurts of joy like what we've seen since last weekend.

Momentarily at least, we're naturally going to get giddy after games like last night and cry in our beer after games like Atlanta. But for me the bigger picture for the rest of the season is to see how much, how often, they can bring 60 minutes like that while doing all the little things that increase your chance of success. That's what could tell me more about the players we have.

Personally I conceded the playoff chances with that final loss before the Olympics. But that's a fan looking at the odds. From the players, I want exactly what Roloson described:

"It's about being professional and realizing it's not over yet," Roloson said. "We're still in a position we can make the playoffs and we believe we can. Is it a good chance, a 99 percent chance? No, but mathematically we're able."

Oh, and a heretofore unseen spread of scoring doesn't hurt:

Islanders Goal Scorers Since the Olympics

Scorer Goals
Moulson 4
Comeau 3
Tavares 3
Streit 2
Jackman 2
Park 2
Meyer 2
Sim 2
Bailey 1
Bergenheim 1
Okposo 1
Schremp 1
Reese 1
Nielsen 1
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