The Islanders' 3-2 win over the Devils in Newark salvaged a split of their day-time post-Thanksgiving home-and-home series, with each team taking the road leg and the Islanders landing in 28th place overall after the first quarter of the NHL's 2011-12 season.
In a fashion too indicative of their season thus far, the Islanders nearly blew this one, or at minimum nearly allowed the Devils to get a share of the spoils. The faceoff in the Islanders zone with 5.6 seconds left was a monumental blown assignment (more detail on that below), and only league review declaring that an uncovered Zach Parise had kicked the puck in kept this one from going to overtime.
Mike Mottau, We Have a Problem
You can see the cause in the above clips: Not for the first time this season, Mike Mottau was benched for the remainder of the third period after his turnover and failure to recover led directly to a Devils goal. This time Adam Henrique was the beneficiary of Mottau's backhand clear up the boards which was stopped and converted as Henrique blazed by Mottau and partner Milan Jurcina.
This was minutes after Al Montoya bailed the same pair out with a fantastic toe save on a redirected shot. The third defense pair on any team is the object of fan frustration, but it's fair to say this pair is particularly vulnerable, and Mottau is its most frequent culprit. After several scratches and a couple of third period benchings (whether as punishment or simply to increase the odds of success), it must be time to fill Blake Comeau's vacated spot on the 23-man roster with another option.
Of course, when Evgeni Nabokov comes off IR ...
Trapping Affair Becomes Breakaway Fest
These two teams both played pretty conservatively in the opening, trap-happy stages, but Devils powerplay mistakes and the Islanders getting the lead on three separate occasions created plenty of breakaway opportunities that required good saves from Martin Brodeur. On one memorable occasion, Michael Grabner broke in alone, was stopped by Brodeur not once but also on the rebound, and then a prone Brodeur did a Dominik Hasek-style windmill save to stop Kyle Okposo on the rebound.
John Tavares also had a third-period breakaway with a solid move that Brodeur stopped, and Okposo and Grabner were stopped on other solo occasions. Grabner finally broke through on the penalty kill, when Ilya Kovalchuk tried to stickhandle around Grabner's pokecheck in his own zone. Grabner made him pay.
Despite the increased seams in both teams' defenses, the final shot tally was 26-26, just a six-shot increase over yesterday's 23-23. And yet, despite giving up a combined five goals on those 46 shots, each goalie stood on his head. Hockey is a funny game.
Functional Game from the Bailey Line?
Breaking the passive-fest, Josh Bailey had a very nice goal that was created by an excellent Brian Rolston play from the corner. The play began with both teams playing neutral zone chicken, with the Islanders finally dumping the puck in and Rolston taking possession in the far left wing corner. He held the puck long enough to freeze the Devils defense and turn to find Bailey breaking into the slot, where he let a fine wrist shot go that would make you want Bailey to ... shoot more often.
David Ullstrom was on the other side, and it was his presence behind the net that gave the Devils D pause. Overall that line looked alright -- which is saying something when they faced Zach Parise and Kovalchuk more than any other Devils.
4th-Line Task Force
The fourth line with Matt Martin, Jay Pandolfo and Micheal Haley again saw light work (just 6:30 for Haley), but Matt Martin in particular shined with several smart plays on the penalty kill. With this combination in place it appears Capuano will lean even more heavily on his other three lines while using Martin and Pandolfo in PK and sub situations. Importantly, while Martin and Pandolfo saw their share of PK time, Frans Nielsen drew the most (3:01) and Grabner got his share, too (Grabner also took a minor penalty which obviously kept him off the ice for those two minutes).
John Tavares was kept off the scoresheet for the fifth game in a row, but his linemates still put up the first goal without him. Great rush by P.A. Parenteau made possible by Jurcina winning the puck along the boards in the Isles zone. Matt Moulson lost Andy Greene by pulling up high in the slot, where Parenteau fed him to beat Brodeur high. Nielsen was the center on the ice at the time.
Tavares' only shot was on the third-period breakaway mentioned earlier, but he again was key in the faceoff circle, going 13-7 after going a rather absurd 17-3 yesterday.
The Final Non-Goal
Thankfully for the Islanders, the video review was on top of Parise shoving that puck in with his foot. (Naturally, Parise firmly believes otherwise.) But the real concern for the Isles here is how poorly that situation was played:
On the faceoff, Steve Staios is lined up on the right wing boards. When Frans Nielsen wins the draw backwards -- based on center hand positioning it looks like that was the event, though I suppose it's possible the Devils wanted it to go to the corner for this unlikely play -- there is no teammate to retrieve it. Dainius Zubrus beats everyone to the puck (with Staios giving futile chase) while Jurcina vacates the front of the net to also try to win the puck (not happening) and as a second resort, block Zubrus' pass.
Grabner is lined up next to Parise, but based on his move immediately after the draw it appears his assignment is to cover the point man. Pandolfo and Jurcina are also next to Parise, and neither takes him. Jurcina follows the puck, while Pandolfo goes to the middle of the circle, then turns to realize how Parise is uncovered and races to get there.
In short, three Islanders lined up next to the most dangerous Devil on the ice, and just seconds later he was all alone in front of Montoya, free to whack and whack away.
If you can figure out who was assigned to whom on that play, you're a better tea leave reader than me. What's clear is none of the Islanders knew where their teammates were going, and a timeout and a plan would have been in order, if for nothing else then to teach Hockey 101.
Off-Ice Non-Drama: 140 Characters and Money, Money?!
Nino Niederreiter tweeted the following sometime near or during the game (which violates the NHL's new social media policy enacted this year, and so it appears was deleted):
The answer for all those questions I got, is pretty simple…. I don’t know
This could be in response to why he's not playing, it could be in response to "When will you be back in the lineup?" or it could be in response to "Do you think Martin Gerber or Dave Aebischer is the better goalie?" We really don't know. But naturally the Twitter-verse took this as a sign of passion, or of pouting, or of saying there is no contact between player and coach/GM. An interpretation that is, well, so twitterific.
I keep saying this, but I'll say it again: Given Nino Niederreiter's audition last year and his appearances this year (including during the AHL conditioning stint), it's just might be possible that the prospect is not quite NHL ready. It's even possible that the team think he's too good for juniors but not good enough for everyday NHL work. Maybe there are just a few kinks in his game that they hope the 19-year-old can work out here without having to send him back to junior. Maybe the team is evaluating this possibility before making an irreversible decision.
We really don't know, and probably won't until we see more than a week or so of scratches. Granted, this team has invited plenty of drama and paranoia over the years, but it probably does everyone's daily self-loathing angst a little good to observe the possibilities for a while. It was even going around on Twitter and in forums that the Isles would benefit from having Nino on the roster to reach the cap floor (a true statement that requires an alternative cap mule if he's sent back) while not having to pay out his bonuses (not realistic in the slightest).
If you look at the actual performance bonuses available to players on ELC's in the CBA (page 260 if you're curious), you'll quickly realize that this is a non-starter, as most of those minimum bonuses probably aren't achievable for a player who already missed almost a quarter of the season and is, to put it bluntly, not a ready-made star: He's not going to score 20+ goals this year, he's not going to put up 35+ assists, he's not going to make the All-Star Game, and he's not going to put up 60+ points nor .73 points per game.
And those are just the A bonuses. The B bonuses have to do with league-wide awards and finishing in the top 10 in scoring categories which ... if you think he's going to win or reach one of those if only they would play him, then I have a veteran NHL defenseman to sell you for a 7th-round pick.
Ironically, if the Islanders try to nurse him along and he ends up only playing, say, 42 games, he might even end up earning one of the few achievable A bonuses without even a full season of work: One of the CBA-outlined bonus options -- I have no idea if this is in his contract -- is being top three among forwards for plus/minus (minimum 42 games). If his fellow forwards get a good hearty minus-y headstart, Nino becoming a regular by the second half might just position him to fluke into that bonus.
Not likely, but neither is the possibility that he is being scratched purely to save money. The Islanders are a budget team no matter how you look at the roster, but whether or not Niederreiter can help them win games is a question bigger than a maximum $212,500 for any individual bonus. It's also a question that probably turns more on the rest of the roster, where you can find holes to insert your unattained free agent of choice.
Jay Pandolfo, the New Marty Reasoner?
You better believe the Chronicles of Nino Niederreiter will be a series worth watching, but until that goes from "curiosity" to "problem" I'm far more troubled by Mottau and more immediately intrigued by what Capuano is doing with the rest of the forwards. If you grant that the top two lines are again stabilized and Ullstrom-Bailey-Rolston at least looks okay for now, then the fourth line with energy/banging roles taken up by Martin and Haley leaves room for only one of Marty Reasoner or Jay Pandolfo to hub those two and log PK time.
You'd think Reasoner should be the better fit but obviously Capuano hasn't thought so the past two games.
So far Reasoner and Pandolfo's shots against while on the PK is about the same (which may actually be influenced by them appearing together, I'm not sure). Their faceoff rates are similar (Reasoner is 102-105, Pandolfo is 9-10), although Pandolfo has only taken 19 so it's too soon to guess there.
At even strength Reasoner's Corsi Rel has been higher than Pandolfo's but again, when the two have been separated Reasoner has had better linemates to play with.