The Pittsburgh Penguins haven't lost in forever. The New York islanders really need a win tonight. Can this turn out well?
The Pens are a ridiculous +29 in goal differential (helped, of course, by a 6-1 drubbing of the Isles in these teams' last meeting). The Islanders -- minus-13 with half being empty net goals -- are hanging around the East's playoff bubble, but operating a few steps behind, and suffering from a very narrow margin for error where own goals will kill you.
The coach is quite focused on "battle level" though, suggesting third-period failings and mistakes last night were a matter of lost battles at critical times. It's a common theme, just as "we're a team that needs all 20 guys going" is a theme.
So the staff decided ... to replace Thomas Hickey with Joe Finley. If this isn't for an undisclosed malady or knock suffered by Hickey, then this is hard to stomach. By possession measures, Hickey has been one of the Isles' most effective blueliners; Finley has been one of their worst. (Okay, not even "one of." Just the worst.) But try as we might, we lack good metrics to measure battle levels.
Coach Jack Capuano talked about what he sees in this morning skate scrum [audio].
Last night, in the wake of third-period collapse:
"It’s battle level," Capuano began explaining, with his team still three points out of the final playoff spot with 18 games remaining. "That’s the name of the game. It has nothing to do with structure, it has nothing to do with systems, it has nothing to do with anything else. At this time of year, the teams that out-will the opponent will win the game."
So, coach, do you have the guys in that locker room that can do that?
"Well you hope you do," Capuano said, "but this is time and time again now that it’s happened."
Better take out Hickey then.
For my money, the team's "battle level" has been fine. Mistakes? Yes. There have been some. Some maddening. Seldom bailed out by the goaltenders. But they've played for each other and their coach. I haven't seen a lot of checking out (certainly not by Hickey, who relieves a lot of pressure and pairs well with Lubomir Visnovsky).
To be fair, last night's reaction in the face of adversity (tough calls/non-calls, then tough bounces) was uninspiring. But the "battle level" call has been so repetitive this season, you start to wonder if that is the only response. You start to wonder if the only answer is "Just try harder, longer."
It reminds me of this, relayed by Bob McKenzie via Twitter:
Classic line from an exasperated WPG Jet coach Claude Noel, on losing to WSH tonight: "They're playing chess, we're playing checkers."
If only you could do better in chess by increasing your battle level. (This resonates particularly tonight, because if there is a team in this league that plays chess despite some poor goaltending, it's Pittsburgh.)
It's a condensed season. The players came in chomping at the bit for NHL hockey, and knowing that the shortened season leaves no room for the traditional lulls that an 82-game season affords. They've mostly avoided blowouts where no one showed up. But they've proven incapable of winning more than two games in a row, despite six tries. Goaltending, rare off nights for the powerplay, own goals, officiating and player mistakes -- pick a reason on any given night.
But battle level? Not seeing it. Not buying it. And barring an injury knock, not comprehending how that issue is addressed by inserting Finley for Hickey.
Evgeni Nabokov starts as expected. This is the fourth of five against the Penguins this year.
Prepare for battle, I guess.
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