Well, the first minute went Danishly anyway. Frans Nielsen showed he could go top shelf with the forehand too, and a mid-week crowd was immediately placed into delicious discomfort.
After that, worst fears confirmed. Al Montoya looked rusty stepping in last minute for flu-afflicted Evgeni Nabokov. The overall run of play was actually closer than the 5-1 final indicated -- and believe me, that's not being apologist -- but Brian Elliott made the saves Montoya could not, and the Islanders' previously stubborn PK bent and broke. (Those last two facts are related.)
It became a rout by the halfway mark.
There was another turning point that perfectly captures the limbo Nino Niederreiter is in right now. Down 2-1 in the second period, Nino made a sweet play from the right wing boards to set up Jay Pandolfo all alone. But Elliott waited Pandolfo out, made the save, and Nino lost the battle for the rebound along those same half boards.
No problem though, right? It became a 3-on-2, but Niederreiter hustled back like you beg young players to do, so we got this. Except Niederreiter just made the wrong read, drifted to the left wing side where Mark Eaton was already one-on-one with the puck carrier, leaving Milan Jurcina to choose which of two other men to follow. The open one, Andy McDonald, placed in a juicy rebound without resistance.
One moment, Niederreiter almost keyed the tying goal. The next moment, his youth was a factor in the lead expanding to 3-1.
Being at the arena to see the whole overhead view from the nosebleeds, I was particularly keen to watch Nino. During the first period I saw exactly why he's not "there" yet. Regardless of the low skill of his linemates, he was just too hesitant, too indecisive, not assertive both with the puck and without.
Later in the game -- McDonald's goal aside -- I saw the other side of this coin. The little spurts of Nino's talent on display like those Flashes Of Bailey we see every now and then (hopefully increasingly now, less then). He used that big body to buy space and cut across the middle, the way his junior coach Travis Green says he likes to do. It opened up high slot shot opportunities (he usually passed) and passing lanes.
Some fans freak about Nino getting "buried" on the fourth line, but the 19-year-old is gonna be okay. He has things to work on, and if and when the Isles playoff push becomes too distant for even public statements otherwise, then he might get some trials with better players. For now though, given the decision on juniors-or-not is long passed, I get why Capuano has him on the fourth line.
Newsday's Mark Herrmann quotes Montoya on the last-minute starting nod:
"It's my job to be ready at any time," Montoya said. "Tonight is one that I want back, but the puck had eyes, it was finding its way through. It's tough that I couldn't have had a better game, but I'll look it over and put it behind me."
This is by no means all on Montoya -- the shots were pretty even in all three periods (27-26 by the end), but the Blues were obviously the classier team. And his teammates in that recap, to a man, said the right things about it not being on him. Still, Montoya was caught swimming in his crease too much, and on some of the screened shot goals and rebounds you could see his timing was just off. Nabokov in probably makes this closer, maybe even steals a point. Yet to be fair to the Cubano, Nabokov looked similar earlier in the season when he was getting infrequent use, but he's been rock solid and fundamental the last two months. Goalies, man. Goalies.
Reffing Lament of the Night: It was a fairly called game -- NHL silliness on both sides -- but you know the veteran grinder on the good team gets the benefit of the doubt over the unknown junior when Scott Nichol molests Josh Bailey up and down the ice, with and without the puck, capped by a reverse takedown, and the ref just watches it in all three zones. If there hasn't been a memo to officials to start calling it like the playoffs or start whistling like it's 1999, I'll eat my Nielsen jersey.
The Wizard Returns: Not just Nabokov had the flu -- apparently Steve Staios did, too. I will not take credit for spreading food poisoning at select St. Louis restaurants, but it was nice to see Ty Wishart get a trial. He did both good and bad things. He still loses some board battles you'd expect a man of his size to win. But he was composed, a gamer. Most of Wishart's shifts were with Mark Streit.
PAP Be Feisty: No surprise that the only moment of post-whistle scrummishness in this one involved P.A. Parenteau at the end of a shift. I didn't catch how it erupted under than the usual around-the-crease chest-thumping that hockey players do from beer league to the NHL, but Parenteau had no accomplices.
The Powerplay: Not terribly sharp tonight. Five shots on five full powerplays (though three of them in the third, with the game out of hand), but Elliott really shut the door and the Blues amply protected the house and cleared the rebounds. Fun to see Matt Martin and Josh Bailey as a second unit get some time on the PP with the score out of reach though.
Battle of First Lines: Including the powerplay, the game also turned on John Tavares/Matt Moulson/Kyle Okposo vs. David Backes/T.J. Oshie/David Perron. The Blues won that matchup, but it wasn't a landslide at even strength by any means. The Blues were clearly prepared for Tavares, but he still pulled off passes and threats that great players do. Good sign there. For that first line as a whole though, Okposo is simply not posing enough of a threat.
Islanders Jerseys Spotted: Three, lower bowl, but I didn't get a chance to properly scan my own half of the arena. There are usually more, so I'm assuming there were more tonight.
Harassment of Visiting Fan: Minor. I wore the white Nielsen #51, took razzing from only one teen punk and later one drunk (who insisted Rick DiPietro both broke his face and pulled his hamstring in the Brent Johnson fight), but my buddy wearing a Blues Backes jersey was more unsettled by the encounter.
Ken Hitchcock on the game:
The lopsided scoreboard notwithstanding, Thursday night was not the cure, at least where coach Ken Hitchcock is concerned.
"We’re not there, yet," he said. "We’re getting better, but we have to get back to that. ... I told the players today, 40-50 shots directed toward the net, get those 70-80 attempts, we have to get into that area again.
"It was a 5-1 win, but it wasn’t a 5-1 game," Hitchcock said. "I thought we were slow out of the box.
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Ultimately, a 5-1 loss to this team, with a last-minute change in net and a rusty goalie, isn't too surprising. It's not satisfying and it's not an excuse, but when the eight-points-behind-eighth Isles meet the top-five Blues at home where the Blues are dominant, well you know. (On that note, sorry for the Blues-heavy morning preview but ... those notes were faithful, were they not?)
Tampa Bay and Winnipeg each won in extra time tonight. Now in 12th and eight points and four slots behind Toronto, the Isles play next on Saturday vs. the Hurricanes.