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Islanders Matinee: Checking in on the revived Blackhawks

The last time the Islanders visited Chicago, there were about 8,000 fewer people in the seats than you'd expect to see on this Sunday afternoon. Yes, between then and now, the passing of longtime owner Bill "no home TV" Wirtz has allowed this excellent hockey market to awake from its slumber. An average of 21,000+ at Hawks games? Awesome. As it should be.

These teams rarely see each other, of course, and the all-time series is close at 37-40-20, with no Islanders "loser point" OT losses. (Ah, the joy of clean records.)

Stick-square_medium               Chi-feathers_medium

New York Islanders (23-38-8, 30th) at Chicago Blackhawks (37-20-9, 4th/W)

3 p.m. EDT | [some airline] Center | MSG+

Blackhawks blog: Second City Hockey

Remember what it's like to follow a very good team? Usually, your chief complaint is that your skilled team doesn't deliver consistent efforts for entire games -- that they rest on their superior talent sometimes. So losses inevitably feel like blown opportunities, no matter the opponent. So it goes with Hawks fans at Second City Hockey:

...One of the more infuriating tendencies of the Hawks this season is to not play a full 60 minutes.  So it was tonight, and it cause the bell to toll for thee.  Try another meeting.  Better yet, just play a full game.

Failure to play 60 minutes is one thing you could rarely say about the 2008-09 Islanders this season, which demonstrates the chasm of depth between today's combatants. But the Hawks are ripe for this because their playoff safety is fairly assured, and home ice is in the bag as long as they avoid a real slump.

Chicago is coming off a disappointing loss to Columbus -- who in their franchise-first playoff push have needed the points far more than the Hawks. Still, right now Chicago is just a fourth seed, just four points above Vancouver. Games like today's are must-haves.

Special Teams

The Hawks are tied for fourth in the league at 5-on-5 production, with 1.20 GF:GA. (The Islanders are still last at .72, but have climbed out of their mis-season .48 mockery). The Hawks' power play is good -- sixth-best, at 21.5%. Their penalty kill is not as good -- 16th, at 81.2%.

Isles links, and my contribution to "Committed Indian," the kick-ass fan newsletter run by Second City Hockey after the jump.

Islanders LHinks

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Speaking of Bailey's future ... Sam from Second City Hockey and the aforementioned Committed Indian -- a long-running, inspiringly thorough and irreverent Hawks fan program -- asked me to answer some questions for the regular opponent Q&A in their program. (For an example of some of the humor in their program, check this recent feature on the maddeningly inconsistent Dustin Byfuglien.)

Below are my responses for the Hawks faithful -- some form of which will be in their program for today's game. (There's plenty more in each program, from ridiculous stat coverage to team history and various columns. If you want a single issue from today's game, they're a worthwhile $2, purchasable through the left-side link at SCH.)

By all means, add your own thoughts/corrections to these Islanders-related questions...

As of this writing, your boys have taken 11 of the last 14 points on offer?  Doesn't that screw up your whole Tank-for-Tavares plan?  What's going on?

Yes, their recent form is threatening their Tank-for-Tavares standing, but fortunately they dug such a big hole in the middle of the season, they can afford a little victory here and there.

What's going on is Scott Gordon's system -- which is fairly aggressive and requires a lot of energy -- is finally sinking in. A huge part of that is that veterans who either didn't fit that system (Floating Comrie, plus Bill Guerin, who got most of his goals just firing shots on the power play) or didn't like their role (Chris Campoli) are gone. Other than that, those remaining are kids who are hungry, who have been progressing all season, and who are free of the pressure of a playoff push. I think Gordon is a very good coach, and we're going to see that in the next few years.

One of the few lights at the end of the tunnel is Kyle Okposo.  What's the ceiling for this guy?  What should we look for in his game today?

The way Okposo has turned it on lately, I wouldn't be surprised to see him score 30 goals next year. He's still 20, he uses his size to win battles and shake off defenders, and his motor never stops. I don't know if he'll ever be considered an elite "power forward" (he has yet to fight), but he will be an exciting scorer who always wants the puck and never shies from contact.

Who else is on display this afternoon that will be building blocks of the future?

Frans Nielsen is a sleeper -- a budding two-way forward who is going to be a real gem. Josh Bailey, just 19, is a top-end passer who is still finding his way at this level. He should also be a very good two-way center. He oozes hockey sense and they saw him as a future captain, which is why they traded down (from 5, then from 7) last summer when they knew he'd still be available. Blake Comeau is another young nifty passer with a decent shot.

Is DiPietro ever going to be of use again?  Either way, Yann Danis's numbers look pretty impressive.  May he be the one you go ahead with?

I hope they re-sign Danis, because they have to plan as if DiPietro will never play again. Now, DiPietro will play again -- probably early next season -- and he might even turn in five more good years on that insane deal. But a butterfly guy with that many injuries so far is bound to break down again -- which is why I'd never bet 15 years on the physical health of anyone who shreds his groin and unnaturally flexes his hips for a living. Oh, also: Because when someone better comes along, you're still stuck with a Kolzig for the life of the contract.

Is Charles Wang as crazy as we think?

Probably not as much as you think. He's an easy whipping boy, and because he's with the maligned and undercovered Islanders, he makes a good punchline. But he has made some major mistakes while learning what owning an NHL club is about. So yeah, he's still pretty batshit crazy.

That said, he's finally come around to the need for a youth movement (allowing Garth Snow to take the reins and fire Ted Nolan last summer), and if it weren't for Wang and his tolerance for losing money, the Islanders would likely already be gone. He's like the crazy uncle you're stuck with: Embarrasses you in public, somewhat lovable, and the source of what you hope is a large inheritance.

We have to ask about the uncertainty surrounding the Isles.  You could probably take four pages to talk about it, but tell us about the Long Island Lighthouse Project, and why it's having a tough time getting passed.

Essentially, the Lighthouse Project is a plan by Wang and a real estate partner -- funded mostly by them, not taxpayers -- to renovate the Coliseum and redevelop the surrounding land (it's just parking lot and grass right now) to create a new business and nightlife "hub" for Long Island. The bass-ackward nature of local politics (Nassau County and Town of Hempstead in particular) is one reason why nothing has been finalized yet. There is some "not in my backyard" resistance going on among some politicians -- not so much among citizens -- also holding things up. But the often fraudulent owners the Islanders have had over the last 15 years (four of which have since been arrested or charged for other shenanigans) have been trying to get a new arena arrangement forever.

Bottom line:  Will the Isles stay on the Island, or where are they headed?

2009 is the critical year. If something isn't finalized now, they likely won't be at Nassau Coliseum after 2015. That said, it's still an enticing market. If they don't stay in Nassau, politicians in Brooklyn (which has tried to get the Nets but are failing) and Queens (which now proposes to put a roof and rink in the home of the U.S. Open. Yeah, right.) are salivating at the chance to lure them. With all this interest, I think it's 80% chance the Islanders remain in the New York area, and 20% they head to Canada or {gasp} Kansas City. I have no numerical basis for these numbers, of course, but that's my gut feeling, and numbers make every answer sound like you have a clue.