[Edit: nhl.com has some virtual ink on Tavares' slump, with a sidebar of Mike Bossy's impressions so far.]
First: Congratulations to the U20 Team USA team for capturing gold last night in OT, after giving up a late two-goal lead. Fun to see the kids grinning ear to ear; I feel bad for the Canadian kids who have such expectations placed on their shoulders. Congrats to both teams for playing two fantastic games. Cheers to those who stopped by the impromptu game thread here as well. I know we have several Isles fans and readers here who were rooting for Team Canada, so ... for one night our house was divided, but now we again go as one! Or something.
Calvin De Haan whiffed on a bouncing offensive zone puck that led to one U.S. goal, and Matt Donovan whiffed on a bouncing clear right before Canada's tying goal, but overall Islanders prospects did quite well in this tournament. Donovan was everywhere last night. Which goes to show how much youngsters' stock can fluctuate over the course of a season. I say of prospects all the time, "Talk to me when they're in the NHL," but this tourney gave us a few more reasons to believe that one day they actually will be in the NHL.
But back to the here and now:
I was checking which logo I used for last year's Avs-Isles hookup, and I had to laugh at the position both teams were in when they met in March, just before the trade deadline. Both were sellers, and both were heading for lottery land fast.
Tonight, we affirm lottery land has its privileges. With Matt Duchene's hot December (13 pts. in 14 games), last summer's #3 pick and #1 pick are just a point apart in the rookie scoring table. In accordance with the prophecies.
If Canada weren't spending today digesting the WJC, this matchup might be the story of the day. You know I hate for the punditry to miss a chance to hype a matchup and inflate its importance. (Enter Pierre McGuire: "Matt Duchene tonight proved that blearghy blearghy bleargh-bleargh-blaaaargh.")
I know Avs fans are thrilled with Duchene, as well as 2nd-round rookie bonus, Ryan O'Reilly (Our 2nd-rounder? He caught the highly contagious Islander Hip Syndrome). And despite John Tavares' cold three weeks (0 goals in 5 games, 2 pts. in his last 12), it's safe to say he has thrilled Islanders fans. Tonight should be fun to see the two, friendly off the ice, face off. As a bonus, I know we have a couple of visitors around here who are followers of both teams. Viva hockey, baby.
As teased in yesterday's Rick DiPietro poll, Colorado is getting it done -- but not by unleashing a barrage of shots on goal. At 26 shots per game, they are last in the league in that category, yet seventh in goals per game (2.91). At 46.9%, they're second-last in faceoff win percentage. The difference in their shots for/against per game, minus-6.2, is the worst in the league. This is why pundits keep predicting a luck-run-out collapse for the Avalanche. But they've been saying that for the past 40 games.
To paraphrase Galileo (allegedly) when faced with unfriendly doubt: "And yet it wins."
Did Someone Mention DiPietro?
Yeah, I mean last March the Isles kept the Avs to 22 shots and won 4-2, but let's be honest: Aside from tonight's clash of rookies, this road trip is probably going to be about DiPietro. In the unlikely event he's starting tonight, and in the unlikely event the Isles release such info before game time, we'll update this post.
For the time being, we'll focus on what we do know.
Yesterday's practice lines, as relayed by Chris Botta, were intriguing to say the least:
Comeau - Tavares - Okposo
Moulson - Nielsen - Hunter
Bailey - Schremp - Sim
Tambellini - Weight - Park
Sean Bergenheim and Nate Thompson are both suddenly close to returning, so all of this naturally can change. But here's what I like if the above combinations play out:
- Tavares re-unites with Kyle Okposo, who simply makes everyone around him better and just might help shake JT out of his slump (if it is to be shaken at even strength). On top of that, Blake Comeau has played some of his best hockey as an Islander lately. Put them together and let them go.
- Frans Nielsen, the two-way center and shootout dynamo who -- health permitting -- will be an unsung key to the Isles rebuild, is flanked by two corners-loving wingers who can convert Frans' passes from multiple spots in the zone.
- Bailey/Schremp/Sim: That just seems to be working, so I'm not going to ask questions.
- Doug Weight and Richard Park are two steady vets who can hopefully guide Jeff Tambellini to do the things that entice Scott Gordon to keep him in the lineup. (Who am I kidding? As soon as Bergie's ready, Tamby's in the press box.)
Which means, of course, we won't see those combos at all.
Our long, special teams nightmare is not over. Considering Colorado's other peripheral stats, this may again prove the difference. Colorado is 3-4% better in both departments (80.7% vs. 76.9%; 18.2% vs. 15.1%). The penalty kill has righted itself in recent games, the powerplay has not.
Tavares had a mildly surprising hot start to his NHL career, collecting a steady flow of powerplay points. His slump has helped level things out and coincided with the powerplay's decline. One of these days the balance will emerge, and he'll rack 'em up again. With Weight back for a few games now, maybe that point is coming soon.
And maybe I'm just a rationalizing optimist.
Prediction: Tavares and Duchene each walk away thinking, "I showed them."
P.S. Congratulations to Anders Nilsson, too. He won bronze with Sweden but didn't play in his team's medal-winning rout of Switzerland last night. He was the #2 going into this tournament behind Florida's Jakob Markstrom. Hopefully he continues his development and claims the starter's role next year in Buffalo, the site of the 2011 WJC.