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Road Trip, Part II: Through Okposo Country and the Center of the Universe

I spent last night scouting the Islanders' next opponent, the Wild.

(Okay, that was a lie. I spent last night at my mother's surprise 70th birthday party. She doesn't like parties for her birthday, and never wants the attention, so it took a big effort to pull this off, and thankfully it was a big success. But you'd think since I write this stuff in my pj's from her basement, she'd visit the site once in a while, you know? Sheesh.)

Anyway, it's been brought up by several commenters here that the early part of the Islanders' schedule included some tough opponents. The next three are decidedly not tough: three of the bottom five teams by points percentage.

But there are a few extra factors at work: One, it's three games in four nights. Two, instead of sticking to the East Coast, they're switching time zones (twice) as they log their miles. Three, Monday is John Tavares's first appearance in Toronto as an Islander, with all the Hockey Center of the Universe media crush and bloviating* that entails. None of those are insurmountable factors -- they might not even be worth the name -- but it doesn't take much to get me worried, particularly when we go long enough between games and I forget where I put my meds.

*Hi long-winded kettle, meet the bloviating pot.

Speaking of my bloviating, here's a quick/not-quick look at the next three opponents, with some rankings that tell most of the story:

By the way, Chris Botta reports Brendan Witt will be back with the team in Minnesota, but MacDonald may still get another look (yes!). Botta also has a quote from Scott Gordon that says pretty much what I thought about the Jeff Tambellini scratch: Parts of his game had fallen off, and Gordon's not changing a winning lineup.

I didn't have a problem with scratching him once or twice in response to the former; but I'm getting the feeling Gordon has decided Tambellini's future is not as a top-six, but as a top-nine with scoring punch. The fact he gets scratched for so many games at a time is ... well, it's not how other guys who are top-six projections get handled. What a ride it's been with him, both from his own work and how the team has handled him.

Anyway, on to the briefs:

(as of Nov. 18) GF/G GA/A PP PK
Min 2.38 (25th) 3.05 (25th) 18.2% (19th) 81% (13th)
StL 2.28 (27th) 2.5 (8th) 13.9% (27th) 83.8% (6th)
Tor 2.47 (24th) 3.68 (30th) 25% (4th) 71.4% (30th)

Friday - Minnesota: Home to Okposo, as long as you're not a ticked-off Gophers fan

After a horrendous start under new coach Todd "not Lemaire" Richards, the Wild have settled themselves a bit. Sure, they've "lost" four in a row, but two were shootouts (one ended Carolina's losing streak) and all of them were competitive games. According to reports, last night's 3-2 loss to the surprising Coyotes was a back-and-forth affair, with an ultimately disappointing start to this four-game homestand. [Update: I should maybe read more: a radio report I heard made that game sound close; but Richards called it perhaps their "poorest performance" of the year. Huh.]

I haven't watched the Wild, only read about them: In a way they remind me of last fall's Islanders, undermanned and still figuring out how to execute a new coach's scheme without giving up a boatload of goals, suffering through the "Can this work?" questions. In their favor is outstanding goaltending, which always helps.

Looking forward to: Kyle Okposo's first appearance in his home since reaching a new, flu-smiting level as an NHL player. Last year's visit, the Isles were in some disarray; this year, he is clearly one of the studs on a much-more competitive team.

Not looking forward to: Cal Clutterbuck probably taking a borderline dirty run at someone.


Saturday - St. Louis: Home to, well, me

I never know how often to mention this (you probably care about it as much as you care about my mother's birthday), but I'm in St. Louis, or thereabouts. The "Show-Me State," where people aren't easily impressed by pomp or hype, unless it involves a baseball or a good hunt or a C-list celebrity visiting town. (George Clooney just shot a movie a mile or so from my house, and the head-over-heels reaction was embarrassing. I know he's A-list, I guess, but's not like he's a hockey player for god's sake.)

I was reared a hybrid Islanders-Blues fan and have remained that way, mostly without shame or conflict, and with a lot of Stanley Cup finals meetings between them in EA's NHL video game (in the EA Isles-Blues finals, I coach the home team for periods one and three and the away team for period two, if you must know). Anyway, once a year my two hockey passions cross paths (used to be three times, and this year oddly it's twice), and I am put into existential crisis. I'll be at the game Saturday with some friends who invited me knowing that I'm an Isles fan -- and not knowing what miserable company I will be as I watch my "children" fight. I don't know what I'll wear nor how I'll react. I suspect I'll root for a 4-4 tie and a shootout won by Frans Nielsen. Or Andy McDonald (not Andrew MacDonald ... okay, that would be cool too).

The Blues could be the hardest opponent on this trip. They should be good, but they haven't recaptured the mojo they had during last year's second half. What tells me that exciting team still exists? Their best performances this year were against evil Detroit (twice, in Sweden) and a bludgeoning of Vancouver, who swept them out of the 1st round last year. They have that classic "we're good now, right?" laziness that a young team gets after a breakout season, and they've only put in the work this year against opponents who provide easy motivation.

Looking forward to: Seeing the Islanders in person again (first time since the home opener for me), and hearing the reactions of people who don't realize they're fun to watch.

Not looking forward to: Feeling like two sides of my brain are engaging in mutually assured destruction; the fact that no matter who wins, I'll feel like crap.


Monday - Toronto: Home to everything that ever happened in hockey, ever

Maple Leafs media is cocky (and competitive). Bastard Leafs fans are cocky (just like bastard fans of any team, including ours). But the reality of Leafs fans is there are just more of them, fed by a huge media center, so you just see more of the bastards (and more of the shining, witty hilarious ones) than you see of the average fan base. Honestly, most Leafs fans I've engaged with are pretty cool (probably because I only engage with people who can form complete sentences). I try not to confuse the tabloid competition-fueled media frenzy with the fans who just love hockey.

Anyway, the fanfare around Tavares's return will be much greater than the visits to Ottawa and Montreal. Sometime this weekend, some writer will write something dumb about the Islanders, and people will get ticked off, and they'll take it out on Leafs fans, who -- being the wrong target to begin with -- will take it out on the Isles or Charles Wang or the Coliseum or whatever. (Remember that for every unfair Toronto story that comes out about the Islanders, there will be ten unfair stories about the Leafs, requiring careful refutation.) I really don't troll my trade in such waters. I like my hockey with some clarity and wit, which is to say I like Down Goes Brown, even if he's ripping on my team.

But the team, not the coverage: After an early Phil Kessel boost -- he's shooting laser beams, by the way -- the Leafs are back to their struggling ways. They've lost four in a row and play tonight in Carolina before going back home for a Saturday night with the Capitals. When it's not the lack of scoring, it's the goaltending, and vice versa. I think there are several of us around here who figure they will eventually climb out of bottom-five "Kessel=lottery" territory, but man it's going to be a climb and you figure it will have to be on the back of Jonas Gustavsson.

Looking forward to: Seeing how the Leafs do this weekend first, setting the stage for how panicked or dismissive the Leafs media will be going into a Monday night against "the lowly Islanders." The storylines are predictable, they just depend on the mood of the last game.

Not looking forward to: The storylines, the Tavares frenzy, and the "Haha we didn't waste $4.5 million x 5 on Komisarek" if we win, or the "Why didn't we sign Komisarek?" if we lose. Sometimes I just want to watch a decent hockey game.

*  *  *

With six out of eight points on the first leg of this road trip, it's already a success. But if the Isles continue that through leg two, we'll feel pretty good going into Thanksgiving no matter what happens at the end of the week, when the Flyers and Penguins visit immediately before and after Thanksgiving.

Tough league, this.