If you believe that the Islanders are truly a .813 team right now (6-1-1), then surely you believe they were truly a .119 team (1-17-3) two weeks ago, no? Alternatively: hockey is a crazy game, fortune and injury mask true talent, and games are won and lost by increments of luck, timing and skill. With a 4-3 OT win in Detroit on New Year's Eve, the Islanders have just beaten the two top-ranked teams in the league. They didn't do it by dominating play; they did it by doing just enough to have a puncher's chance while letting fortune tip the scales their way.
Not to keep harping on the luck concept, but this is why many said the team couldn't be this bad in November and early December. Things tend to level out over a long season, and maybe we're seeing that now. To be sure, lineup consistency and better health (marginally better; their best players are still out) has helped. I think a new, more realpolitik coaching approach has, too. And certainly an oustanding PK has been key the last few wins.
But these are things that might have happened a month ago if things like Jesse Joensuu's reach deflected the puck in as it did last night, instead of into a pad as it seemed to be doing throughout November. In this sport it's so huge to be playing with the lead, and last night the Isles got three good (and earned) bounces to build a 3-1 lead, hang on for the referee's OT circus, and walk away with a win despite being outshot 41-23. Happy New Year.
Special Teams Win It
While Eaton (5:21) and Jurcina (4:08) did the heavy PK lifting -- with considerable help from Frans Nielsen (6:21, in accordance with the prophecies) Travis Hamonic (3:28) and Josh Bailey (4:40) -- in OT Andrew MacDonald was the blueline puck maestro displaying puck-carrying creativity we've long been told he could deliver.
At 4-on-3 you have more options, and A-Mac used them to both gain the zone and keep the puck in deep. Hockey special team situations create great situations like that: Where one player knows what the other team has to do, and that team knows he knows what they have to do, and it's a battle of wits, fakes, and subtle gestures to get one side or the other to move too much, to rush the puck or hold it too long (PP), or to reach or commit too far (PK). A-Mac won that battle both in gaining the blueline and in keeping control in the corner and then easing himself back to the point.
With Matt Moulson in front of the net, P.A. Parenteau on the left side and John Tavares on the right, the Islanders were able to set up a diamond with some nice passing lanes. The biggest play may have been JT's, as he both settled a deflected pass out of the air, but then also looked the top PK'er off to open up a cross-slot lane through which he set up PAP for the one-timer that won the game.
It wasn't pretty, the Isles were outshot 12-4 in the first and 14-6 in the third (albeit mostly with the lead then), but it's what this team has to do to steal games like this. Lately, they've stolen several.
Notes over Champagne
- Hopefully this three-point game is another mood booster for Tavares. He's been working hard; I think the learning curve on his game trends steadily if slowly upward. With some consistent lines around him and keeping the offensive burden from falling solely on him, maybe 2011 brings better things.
- Dwayne Roloson was strong -- 38 saves, including 6 big ones on five powerplays and OT. The tying goal in the third was a bit of a muff though, as Tomas Tatar's deflection in traffic hit Roloson's pad but floated agonizingly up in the air and deposited itself low into the net, beyond Roloson's sprawling reach.
- Moulson's goal came on a wild deflection that future Hall of Famer Nicklas Lidstrom batted into his own net. I'm telling you, the Isles have a trunk of those coming their way.
- Not that the Wings didn't get their own bounces. Valtteri Filppula's goal to make it 3-2 at the end of the second was an odd one, as he caught a rebound out of the air, placed it down, and had open net to shoot at as Roloson and the Isles defense scrambled to find a puck that had vacated the area.
Zenon Konopka won two offensive zone faceoffs that led to goals. Because of his limited abilities 5-on-5 (and, arguably, 4-on-5), his role is much debated. But there is no mistaking this as his strength, and tonight it paid off. He was 13-7 on faceoffs, including the two that led to goals. (Incidentally, John Tavares won a big faceoff on the powerplay to set up Moulson's goal.)
- The flipside of course is that fourth line can be exposed during open play, particularly against a puck-control team like Detroit. But it was nice to see Jesse Joensuu, who improves that line when replacing Trevor Gillies, pick up a goal on his deflection of Jurcina's shot.
- Butch Goring worried in the second that the Isles can't just plan to sit back on a 2-1 lead. He's right (and they soon picked up the necessary insurance goal to make it 3-1), but sometimes a little trapping is your only hope. It's not like they can run and gun with a team like the Wings.
- Dylan Reese was pretty sheltered, playing just 8:33, mostly with Jurcina or MacDonald and against the Wings' weaker line.
- Really fun to hear ol' Jiggs announce an OT win by this team. I always look forward to this time of year when he fills in.
- By my count, MLong86 wins the FIG for picking Moulson at 9:33.
Winner's Officiating Rant
The Islanders wouldn't have been alive for P.A. Parenteau's OT winner if they hadn't killed off the ever-dangerous 4-on-3 OT powerplay -- viva Frans Nielsen, Milan Jurcina and Mark Eaton! That powerplay was handed to the Wings after Darren Helm tripped over Blake Comeau while trying to elude Comeau's check. Comeau kept a straight line, didn't move his leg, yet was tagged with a penalty when Helm tried to jump out of the way and instead tripped over Comeau's leg.
It was an embarrassing call, yet it was an all too familiar level of inconsistency. In this game I saw about four different standards for goalie interference, and the two times it was actually called -- once on Todd Bertuzzi, once on Jon Sim -- were probably the shadiest examples. I try not to complain about officiating during losses, so this recent winning run has (re)opened my eyes to just how all over the map NHL officiating is right now. What do players say -- they don't care about your standard as long as you're consistent? Yeah, that. That would be nice.
Anyway, after Nielsen, Jurcina and Eaton made multiple game-saving plays on that fateful PK, Josh Bailey came on, won a puck battle in the corner, and drew a holding penalty from Henrik Zetterberg. Even it up. On the Isles PK they could have also called Eaton (or was it A-Mac at that point? Don't remember.) for a slash on one of those stick checks that broke both his and a Wings' stick. On the Wings PK they could have called another penalty on Detroit for mauling Parenteau. In both cases, the refs probably didn't want to give the penalty-killing team yet another penalty -- which is fine, but it does lay bare how absurd hockey's fluctuating standards can be. In this case, the whole sequence traces back to the silly call on Comeau.
Okay, enough about all of that. I just like clean play, and I like 5-on-5 play, so while I know it's tough to get it right, it's frustrating to see the rules waver from game to game, ref to ref, and depending on the nameplate of the offender and victim.
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James Wisniewski scored two goals, including the OT game winner, for Montreal last night. He was credited with 4 hits, 4 blocked shots, and an even +/- in the 3-2 win.
At the WJC, the U.S. beat Swtizerland to advance straight to the semis, while Canada lost to Sweden and must now win a quarterfinal against the Swiss to advance.
Happy New Year, everyone. Hope yours was joyous and safe.
It's been a wild ride in 2010 -- and about 11 months between solid winning runs like this current one. We carry on in the hope that 2011 will bring them more often.