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Lessons: Penguins 5, Islanders 0: Fragile team folds quickly

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This attention-grabbing and agonizing effects of the 5-0 loss to the Penguins are already beaten to death, and the headlines will practically write themselves through the league's Crosby party, so we don't need to go into recap mode. But stepping back from the ugly result, it's worth looking at what things changed, what mixes Jack Capuano tried to shake his team out of its funk, and what it might mean for what remains a busy schedule in the days ahead.

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First, lest we be totally thrown by the score, the first period did have positive moments. The top line in particular (almost exclusively, really) created some scoring chances after the Islanders withstood an early blitz with nothing dented but the crossbar behind Anders Nilsson.

The Penguins did benefit from some sketchy early calls, but hockey is a game of attrition and the Penguins built a lead with methodical precision that crushed the remnant Islanders spirit. By the time it was 2-0 at the first intermission things looked bleak, and just six minutes into the next period the game was over.

Rather than wallow in the self-pity -- which is fine, but we've been there -- below are some notes and concerns that reflect what might be next.

Game Highlights

(The real ones this time, not the Benny HIll ones from the +/- thread.)

Notes and Developments

Anders Nilsson's First NHL Start:

He really did impress early, making saves to stave off this game becoming a laugher as early as it could have. The Penguins gave him the rookie treatment by testing him with sharp angle "AHL" shots. His biggest mistakes were when staying too deep in his crease -- including on Sidney Crosby's opening goal, when Nilsson probably was guarding against a deke to the forehand, and also on the early scramble that found him saved by the crossbar.

I noticed in his mop-up debut against the Bruins he overcommitted on two goals. Tonight that wasn't quite the problem. He has several rough edges to smooth out, but you see the potential and, for my money, you also see the ways he could use his size better than fellow towering 2009 pick Mikko Koskinen.

Jack Capuano left him in after it was 3-0 and 4-0 early in the second, and that's just as well. The game was irretrievable, he'd made some big saves, don't have him call home and tell mom and dad he got pulled from his first NHL start.

David Ullstrom's NHL Debut:

Ullström started off on a Class of 2008 line with fellow draft classmates Matt Martin and Josh Bailey. I liked the idea of this line, and they had a couple good shifts where they nibbled at offensive pressure. Ullström had the jump you'd expect of a rookie who waited all last season but never got the call. He had a couple of shots, was credited with four hits and honestly reminded me of Nino Niederreiter's early games this year: Active, spirit willing, but definitely needs tutelage. You'd really like to work him into a team that is functioning instead of desperately struggling though.

I've learned not to read much into NHL debuts, so I won't read much more into this one. But like Nino he is not yet affected by the lethargic funk many of his veteran teammates are in.

Mark Eaton is Injured:

It probably didn't help things to have Eaton go down with an MCL strain that will be evaluated tomorrow. Outside of the goal crease the Islanders have avoided the injury bug this year; hopefully this isn't the start. Unfortunately, I assume this means Mike Mottau returns to the lineup rather than a fun look at someone young from Bridgeport. But we'll see.

Andrew MacDonald-Travis Hamonic Overwhelmed:

I thought Hamonic had a decent game and he was refreshingly the first to put Sidney Crosby on his ass. MacDonald, however, looked slow and off and was horribly victimized by Crosby's speed on the first goal. The two of them drew the Crosby assignment and ended up minus-3.

Capuano Mixes up the D:

While that pair remained the same, Milan Jurcina and Steve Staios switched places, with Jurcina pairing with Mark Streit. The Corsi and other figures -- always a dicey measure in single-game individual samples -- are particularly messy in a blowout. So we'll see how that goes. I like the concept, as I never thought Staios would last in Streit minutes for very long. But Jurcina's value seems to vary by the day. He threw some hits, and missed some others, and his limited mobility was an issue in some offensive point situations, oddly enough.

Wait, Kyle Okposo was Back?

Kyle Okposo returned after three healthy scratches, but you coulda fooled me if you told me otherwise. Very quiet return, and lost several of the physical battles he did get into. Granted, so did almost all of his teammates, but you'd figure the guy coming back from scratch land would at least show more.

Generally, we saw the return of Moulson - Tavares - Parenteau and Grabner - Nielsen - Okposo, but with two forward scratch options it's anyone's guess how the lines look two nights from now.


Bulletin Board Material

  • The Islanders have scored 35 goals in 18 games this season. Unbelievable.
  • Yes, that makes them the only NHL team below 2.0 goals per game.
  • They've been shut out five times, twice by the Penguins.
  • Despite all that, their possession figures do not rank them dead last -- with the score tied they're still around 20th in the league (before tonight) and very near Philadelphia. This is just 18 games, mind you, but it's interesting. It's not cause for hope, exactly, but possible cause to think things aren't quite as miserable as they appear. Does their observable weak "battle level" or failure to engage and crash the net explain the difference?
  • Good on Matt Martin -- credited with nine hits -- (and Hamonic) for handling the Crosby-gasm and saying they'd hit him like any other player.
  • The Islanders have won only two of their last 14 games, with just three OT points mixed in.
  • Crosby is such an outstanding player, it's a shame the league and its broadcast partners shove that in your face so much that you start to lose sight of the player in exhaustion over the marketing machine he represents. I tend to tune that stuff out, so I was a little blindsided by all the overkill for what was otherwise going to be an anonymous November game.
  • I'll just quote Pierre McGuire, the Cheerleader in Chief, at 3-0: "The Penguins aren't letting up because they have so much respect for Sidney Crosby." Are you kidding me? Or to channel the cantankerous Lebowski: "Are you employed, sir? You don't go around looking for a job talking like that."

Capuano Post-Game

This is not all on Capuano by any means, but you do worry if: 1) He's running out of ideas, and 2) If the players are doing the dreaded "tune out." To me, they're clearly fragile, and so even when they get off to a decent start, they're prone to deflation as things go wrong.

One more alarming thing: Frans Nielsen, normally one of the club's most reliable performers even in trying times, has not looked quite right multiple times this season, including tonight. Not awful by any means, but not up to his standard. When several of your best players aren't looking their selves and it's not because of injuries, you wonder what's going on inside.

To that end, Arthur Staple had a poignant quote from Nielsen in his recap for Newsday:

"We just don't compete hard enough -- that's a basic thing," Frans Nielsen said. "We talk system, blah blah blah, gotta do this, do that, but it comes down to outworking the other team. If you do that, good things will happen. We're losing so many one-on-one battles out there."

Yep. Like words from the prophet himself.