Michael Grabner isn't the most important Islander, but he's one of them. Vincent Lecavalier isn't the most important Lightning (Bolt? Lightning-er? Hmmm), but he's one of them. Let's scratch both and call it a wash.
Both are injured and now on IR, hopefully short term for each. The Islanders lose their top penalty killer who makes opposing powerplays weak in the knees. Tampa Bay's powerplay, like the Isles, is clicking at over 20%.
Tampa Bay's 5-on-5 ratio is above par at 1.09 GF/GA, but there is reason to think they are riding good fortune: Their underlying possession metrics (Fenwick/close, or shot ratio at even strength when games are close) is near the bottom of the league at 44.39. Maybe something gives tonight. It certainly didn't the other night, where they rode Anders Lindback's 37 saves to a win despite mustering only 13 shots against the Panthers.w
We didn't get to shine the light on Cory Conacher's great story in the last meeting, so we'll try it here. As The Hockey News put it recently [brackets and spacing mine]:
"Cory Conacher is a 5'8", 179-pound diabetic who was born with a rare condition where his bladder was outside his body, which forced to do a 10-hour operation [and thought he might not walk normally] ... He was cut from his AAA team in bantam, played for a small NCAA school that had never produced an NHL player, was never drafted by the Ontario League or NHL, but became just the fourth player in AHL history to be named rookie of the year and MVP in the same season."
Conacher is 23. He has 7 goals (1 PPG) and 13 assists in 26 games this season in the NHL. Cool story.
For the Isles, as noted Grabner is on IR with a shoulder injury that hopefully only lasts a week or so. Here's Jack Capuano on Grabner's absence, quoted in NY Hockey Journal:
"It’s going to be difficult, especially (since) he’s our top penalty killer with Frans Nielsen," Capuano said about the impact it has on the team. "It takes a big chunk out of our lineup, but it gives other opportunities for guys to get in there and play well."
As much as we debate Grabner's usage -- he should be getting more ice time somehow -- can we put to rest the idea that his ice time is the result of being "punished" in some way? The coaching staff seems to be forcing a second line of Frans Nielsen between Josh Bailey and Kyle Okposo, and Grabner's ice time is the casualty of that. (To be fair to the "balanced attack" argument, Grabner is far better able to drive a lesser line than Okposo or Bailey, it seems.)
Speaking of punished, though, the official site has a fun piece on how Jesse Joensuu and Jack Capuano did not see eye to eye during his formative North American years in Bridgeport. It makes the Capuano skeptic in me fear for what kind of "dump it, grind it" instructions they'll be giving the Finn Named Jesse when he returns to the lineup. However, Joensuu is certainly a forward who needs to play more Holmstrom-like and less Grabner-like to secure a regular role. He appears ready for that role.
[Speaking of not getting along with your AHL coach: Recently released Chad Costello had some hilariously bitter words about playing behind "average" players in Bridgeport. Oh Chad, you're being such a Chad.]
In Grabner's place, Keith Aucoin will be back in the lineup for the first time since Feb. 24. David Ullstrom, sent to Bridgeport for a brief "score an OT winner" sojourn before being immediately recalled, is apparently not a guarantee according to Arthur Staple. But at least for now Joensuu is not quite back, though he and IR'd Matt Carkner are with the team in Florida.
Evgeni Nabokov will start, while Kevin Poulin takes in Florida weather from nice hotels.
This road trip is huge for the Isles. Somehow, despite the three days between games they did not really lose ground in the standings. They're still three points out of eighth and six points out of sixth in the East's Vast Mediocre Bubble. Rising to the playoff portion of that bubble is still technically quite possible and and visually within reach, if not likely. But blow the opportunity before them on this Florida swing, and that conversation won't be worth having much longer.
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