And after the celebration and relief from tonight's big 4-1 streak-ender over the Flyers subsides, one lasting reality is that the Islanders are consistently playing good hockey for the first time in quite a while.
The other reality: This thin-margin team's run (which is still just 9-7 over the last month) has depended on relentlessly focused efforts and the booster shot of luck that keeps any good NHL times rolling. The PK has been outstanding (33 of the last 35) but that will ebb and flow. The powerplay has also been productive and will likewise ebb and flow.
The first line led by John Tavares (who is *not* in ESPN's top 25 under 25, remember) has been otherworldly and that will also -- wait, who knows where that's headed as Tavares continues his break out and turns his point streak up to 11? Still, these things will all ebb and flow, but for a team that -- to these eyes -- has shown up for Jack Capuano most nights despite a persistent 13th- to 15th-place conference standing, it's nice to see things go their way. Deserved, even.
In the low moments it's often debated, and I myself am not sure, if Capuano is the long-term coach for a contending team (in part because people on the outside simply can't have all the data on such questions; in part because even excellent coaches are fired because there are ambiguous interpersonal variables that intervene. The reasons cited are usually as subjective to the third-party as, "That guy doesn't want it enough.").
But Capuano's team has shown up for duty much more than a lot of bottom-five teams I can recall watching. (Sadly, I've watched a lot.) That includes tonight. With Tavares and his wingers driving the offense and the rest of the team doing the simple things, the little things that undermanned teams must do to have a chance were abundant, as they have been most nights recently.
It's said the hardest thing for a coach/GM to do is convince his players they played poorly after a win, or well after a loss. Surely a companion challenge is convincing a team, "You, you're not collectively good enough to win any other way."
Of late: Shot-blocking, smart dumps, simple chips, patient defense, adequate goaltending -- these are the things that give an unimpressive roster a chance on any given night in the parity-happy NHL. People who know the NHL much better than I sometimes claim each season features a post-holiday lull which explains why some better teams "haven't shown up" against the Isles recently. For example, the Flyers were "Listless. Disjointed. Generous." according to Flyers blog Broad Street Hockey. But clearly the Isles have been doing their part to put teams in the giving mood. It's long overdue and frustrating that November sunk them into a hole, but who can fault them for not giving up now?
More notes on how all this applied tonight after the highlights.
Protecting the lead: With the exception of the top line, the Islanders by no means protected the lead by keeping the puck in the Flyers zone. They were in prevent mode, for sure. But they did 1) Capitalize on the powerplay to make it 3-0, 2) Sent soft non-icing dumps to get changes while accepting icings that beat the alternative, and 3) Were patient around their own net, such as when Wayne Simmonds had the puck for seconds behind the Isles goal and the Isles left him with no option but to bank a pass out to the point. A more frantic team would have chased him there, but this was a team playing with a two-goal lead and house money.
Good Start: The first period ended 0-0, but it wasn't for a lack of effort. I actually though the Islanders might have wasted their best chances, as they outshot the Flyers 12-8 in the first and had the better of play. Instead of suffering a Flyers counterpunch, they got the first strike on another sublime John Tavares pass just 28 seconds into the second period. Kyle Okposo was key driving the net (and drawing the defense), while Matt Moulson finished like not just any winger would. Tavares is absolutely wonderful, but Moulson is a finisher, plain and simple.
Opportune PK: Well there was another Michael Grabner breakaway -- one of his slowest in memory, after Brayden Schenn discovered who Grabner is the hard way. But Sergei Bobrovsky made the save and looked like he would steal another from the isles. But then Josh Bailey pulled off a Frans Nielsen-like backhand shorthanded, and for the first time it looked like finally this could be the night.
Fortunate PP: The Flyers PK was quite aggressive and quite good. Like the Isles PK, they made it seem at times that there was no advantage. Not so in the pivotal moment of the third period, though, when Mark Streit hammered one home on a 4-on-3 not from the point but from the left faceoff circle. It's been observed even before the PP goals started going in: The key to the Islanders' better powerplay has been the rotation and multiple looks they're showing (also: Brian Rolston bumped). They're not static, they're moving. And with the hands they have on that unit, it's paying off. Tonight Tavares won the initial faceoff against Maxime Talbot, then he and Streit soon swapped places on the 4-on-3 umbrella and Streit's one-timer found net.
JT Has Jazz Hands: The PK on which Bailey got his goal came after a long first-line shift almost paid off with a mesmerizing Tavares deke that Bobrovsky kept from crossing the line. The first line would've changed if not for that emerging scoring chance, and when it didn't go in they were all running on fumes, which is what led to Dylan Reese's penalty.
Okposo Defends Tavares: It's been fun to watch the evolution of how the opposition treats Tavares. Back before he was a good NHL player -- back when Moulson scored without his help more often than people realize -- other NHLers (including Chris Pronger) took cheap shots at Tavares whenever they could, trying to suppress the talent before it erupted. Lately, with him on a tear, you'd think players would take run after run at him. But they haven't, and instead what's happened is a greater degree of respect and space afforded. They still facewash him and chuck him in scrambles, but one-on-one opponents are ... respectful. As if rather than thinking of "teaching the rookie a lesson," they're now more worried about, "Don't get burned by the budding star." Tonight, Okposo stepped in when young Brayden Schenn tried [video] to take a piece of his elder. (Also fun: The moment when the officials say, "Take both of them.") Good to see. As karma would have it, the Islanders would score on the powerplay shortly thereafter, with Kimmo Timonen in the box.
Getting through the Second: Although it's when they took the 2-0 lead, they were also outshot 17-9 in the second thanks to three Flyers powerplays. As important as grabbing the lead was getting out of that period with the 2-0 lead intact.
Short Nino: I know a lot of people have noticed Nino Niederreiter making progress, and that's followed by calls for a line promotion. I think it's coming, but baby steps. Baby steps. Tonight he logged only 6:53 and his fourth-line mates Jay Pandolfo and Tim Wallace logged even less (at even strength; Pandolfo had a minute of PK time too). Special teams in part fed this, though Nino again showed positive signs in limited action. It's coming.
Reese Takes Out Giroux: Not in the dirty "strike, smirk and turtle" way practiced by one Maxime, mind you. On a long stretch in the Islanders zone, Claude Giroux and Dylan Reese worked each over like it was 1999 in the NHL. Slash led to slash. Shove upon crosscheck led to punch upon whine. Frustrated, both finally dropped their gloves, old school style (see, Maxime? When a non-enforcer upsets you, you really can cash your own checks!). The result benefited the Islanders though, as anyone would happily trade five minutes without one for five minutes without the other.
Nabokov Holds the Fort: Bobrovsky was excellent in helping the Flyers survive the first, but in any hockey game it can go the other way in the blink of an eye. The Islanders don't end this monumental streak in Philly without Evgeni Nabokov doing his part early in the game and while the Isles were sitting on the lead. He held the fort until they had room to breathe, and the only goal against him was a nice redirection. With 40 saves overall, his name is a big part of this win.
Parenteau the Generous: To close things out, P.A. Parenteau nicely fed Michael Grabner on a 2-on-1 with the empty net and just seconds left. Rumor has it Mike Babcock immediately filed a complaint. The assist was Parenteau's 32nd of the season, tying him with Giroux for fourth-most in the NHL. I didn't see what happened afterward, but true to form the feisty PAPpy received an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty afterward. I figure Babcock phoned in.
Butchism: How about Jaromir "Jogger"?
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All in all, is it weak to have such celebrations after one win in 14 tries in a city? Probably, but this is another necessary step as the franchise slowly tries to turn things around. If the Islanders are building anything for the long haul, then this was another wall to knock down.
What's funny is for every "lowly" Islanders headline, there is another nagging remark that the Isles are accumulating the young talent necessary to compete in this league. Teams who dominate know it won't always be so. Fans who watch through thick and thin know that -- as with Bailey's shorty tonight -- the offense won't always go solely through Tavares.
That said, the original statement stands: This was nice and necessary, but it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing -- er, it's nothing if they act like getting their 18th win in their 45th game is something to be all proud of. To paraphrase The Wolf (as translated to hockey by mikb): Fine job, gentlemen. But let's not start taping each other's hockey sticks quite yet. Carolina beckons on Saturday.