Calling a frustrating 3-0 loss "progress" is in no way meant to put lipstick on a pig. And it certainly strains belief for some to think the Islanders improved over recent games on this night. But to my eye and several objective measures, they did. We were fretting about 5-on-5 play, and they improved it.
They carried play for the first period, outshooting (13-7) and outchancing the Penguins until a late low-percentage shot by Brian Rolston and an awful read by Blake Comeau left Steve Staios out to dry and freed Pascal Dupuis for a breakaway goal.
That's the cruelty of hockey, really. Both goalies were good at swallowing shots and preventing rebounds, but Marc-Andre Fleury stoned the Isles throughout and Evgeni Nabokov gave up a nice breakaway goal by Dupuis and a well-placed screen shot by Richard Park just 21 seconds into the second period. The Penguins, an excellent team even without Sidney Crosby and Zbynek Michalek, knew exactly how to close out a road game after that, with Fleury providing the safety net.
To read it as a lack of effort on the Islanders' part is to misread how those two quick goals changed the game and set Fleury up to be the hero.
A lot of complaints in our plus/minus post-game thread and on Twitter had to do with the ambiguous "quality" of the Islanders shots, and that certainly has merit. The Penguins were good at keeping them to the outside, protecting "the house" and forcing shots from the perimeter. At once opportunistic when given a chance at the lead, the Penguins clogged the neutral zone and kept the Islanders attack from s.
Still, the Islanders had enough chances where if not for the Rolston/Comeau mistake and the John Tavares turnover/Streit screen, it could have been 2-0 the other way in the second period.
Whereas the road losses in Tampa Bay and Florida had me exasperated, this game was -- believe it or not -- as sign that this team knows how to play this game.
Warts and all.
(Sadly tainted by the grating sounds of Bob Errey and "Staggy," the bodacious bloviators. Turn your sound down.)
John Tavares Agrees Tonight Was Better
So like if Tavares says it, it's true innit?
Jack Capuano Post-Game
In which shots and scoring chances compared to the Florida trip are discussed:
Okay, I don't have long-term hopes for his game, but I find Nabokov's interviews disarmingly enchanting:
Why Blake Comeau Frustrates: So yes, Brian Rolston took a low-angle shot (one Comeau repeated from the same spot later in the game). And yes, that shot rang around the glass for a turnover. The killer is at this point the play is still controllable. Except with Mark Streit having pinched, Comeau fails to read the play and head back as support for Staios. Instead he takes the long path across the Penguins zone on a no-chance forecheck against Brooks Orpik -- and Dupuis, seeing that his lane is wide open, sprints through the neutral zone to receive the gift-wrapped pass. Comeau's route had zero positive effect.
Hockey is a game of multiple misreads per shift, so I'm reluctant to pick on Comeau, who I defend quite often. (We could easily pick on mistakes by any number of Islanders in this game that did not lead to goals against.) But this is an example, I think, of why Comeau frustrates many observers despite the offensive production he usually offers. His decision-making can be curious, his methods unsound.
Richard Park: Nice to see him back on these shores, although riding out one's career in Switzerland on a lighter schedule sure didn't sound too shabby. If there was going to be a Penguin that killed us, I'm glad it was Park. And I fully expected it would be. Ack.
Four Lines: There was offensive pressure from the fourth line -- the maligned and discarded Jay Pandolfo had a good game in my eyes -- and the third line had its moments to mitigate some of its brain farts. Basically, if a couple of those 33 shots get past Fleury I don't think there is as much kvetching tonight.
Goaltending: Fleury gets the glory, but honestly both goaltenders did a fine job of limiting rebounds. Nabokov faced hairy chances on the Penguins powerplay but smothered the puck multiple times. So far that experiment has gone well.
That Final-Minutes Madness: The decision to pull Nabokov so early at a neutral zone faceoff was curious. The effort by the 6-man unit that allowed two Penguins forecheckers to hem the Isles in their own zone was appalling. I don't care if it's Gretzky and Kurri with the puck -- you at least outwork them. Take a sin of commission rather than a sin of omission there. Instead, the Isles watched the seconds tick down when they were the team that needed the puck. The entire extra attacker session struck me as an instance when team and coach were not on the same page. As if Fleury had already crushed their spirit.
Frans? Frans Nielsen had a quieter night and John Tavares was double-shifted in his spot between Michael Grabner and Kyle Okposo a few times. Line juggling, or was Frans ill? He was on for a healthy chunk of the successful four-minute penalty kill in the third -- although even there, his movement was a little less tenacious than usual. Just wondering.
Staios: I give Staios' snow angel a pass on the Park goal, because at the time it looked like he was defending a 2-on-1 and he didn't know Streit would get back in the play (and ultimately, Streit got back into the play just to screen Nabokov). But overall ... I already fear I'm seeing the Staios who will slow down and more importantly slow up Streit. Bruno Gervais was also a weak top-pair guy but he was young. I just don't think it's fair or reasonable to expect a full season of top-pair duty (or however you define it in contrast to AMac-Hamonic) from Staios.
Andrew MacDonald: ...Speaking of which, MacDonald's play has not been awful but has been sub-MacDonald enough for me to wonder if his hip recuperation is still affecting him. The fact that he still takes maintenance days -- and my own experience dealing with injuries to each limb and joint at some point -- makes me think that's a very reasonable fear. Injuries: They make you a lesser version of yourself.
So yeah, if you missed the game but read 3-0 and thought the worst, well it was every bit as frustrating as you figure a shutout to be. But believe me, there was progress. This same effort would've beaten the Panthers and might have put the Lightning game in doubt. That in no way means their problems are solved (obviously), but it does mean hockey is a cruel game and the Islanders would do well to keep playing it.