It's not every day that I get to see my favorite two teams play -- though oddly, this season it happened twice in one week -- so I'm going to burden you with some extra thoughts from seeing in person Thursday night's 6-3 loss to the Blues in St. Louis.
(Disclaimer: If you don't know my own hockey fan history, I was born and live in St. Louis. I grew up following both the Blues and Islanders, it has to do with my dad and Al Arbour. My sports polygamy became entrenched because they never fought for the same stakes, but shared many of the same players.)
The Experience: Traveling Islanders Fans
Whenever the team's been halfway good, St. Louis has always had a good in-arena experience. Fans are passionate, have followed the team for a long time with all its baggage (and checkered ownership history), and still have that "blue collar" feel.
But nothing prepares me for the loss of Nassau Coliseum like witnessing the transition from the old St. Louis [gloriously unsponsored] Arena to the [whatever it is this week] Center. Where once there was an old reverberating barn, now there is a building with suites and whistles (and yet, already 20 years old!). But people told me they received a friendly reception. Midwest nice, probably.
Whenever I see an Isles game away from the Coliseum, I spot the Isles jerseys and make it a point to meet some of them. On this night, I talked to a multi-generational trio of guys in white Islanders jerseys, who had all traveled from Long Island in the middle of the week just to see the game. Awesome. Very friendly. Was cool to hear that slight Long Island accent again. I spoke to them after the Isles had just tied it up in the dying seconds of the second period, so we were in a good mood.
- Also chatted with or exchanged brief pats with a few others, ranging from guys in town for medical school (There are always college/grad school students. St. Louis has its share.) to guys of retirement age to a few women in Isles t-shirts.
- Speaking of which, jerseys spotted: A blank black third, a Yashin white, several Tavares in blue, several t-shirts. No orange thirds. A group of navy blue RBK-era unis, one a DiPietro I think. A few blue and white current-era jerseys in the upper deck whose name/number I couldn't identify. I was wearing Hamonic blue.
- Saw Kyle Okposo pick up the puck at the end of the first period -- here I was thinking he was trying to change their luck -- and give it to an Isles fan behind the bench...who then shared her story on the LHH Facebook page.
- Watching it next to my Blues fan friends felt like how I imagine Olympic teammates like John Tavares and Jay Bouwmeester feel when facing one another. Competition, but respect.
- No strangers taunted me or even gave me the old upper-arm punch. So, civil progress, or respect for a better Isles team?
- On that note, I can't remember the last time I watched these two teams when they were in similar positions. I guess 2007 after the Smyth trade, but that was when both were kind of in the playoff bubble, though the Blues were a longshot and the Isles were a good bet. But competing for first overall? Not since 1981.
In Which I WATCH THE GAME
My biggest handicap covering the games from afar is the limited opportunities I have to see them through the full lens of the arena. There is so much "off screen" action and movement I want to see, and unless there is a goal event or a play the broadcasters want to diagram, you don't get enough of that angle on TV. So it's great to see in person.
- Thomas Hickey was everywhere. Most noticeable defenseman, even more than Nick Leddy on this night. He was, dare I say it, the mirror to the Blues' Alex Pietrangelo. Sign that man, and don't tell him how good he is.
- I don't want to rehash the curious/maddening decision to put Eric Boulton on the top line with the game on the line, particularly when Nikolay Kulemin was not exactly the goat for what ailed the Isles. But it was fun to watch him, and Matt Martin, both in the first-line cameo situation and when both surrounded Ryan Strome. They kept it simple -- Boulton especially -- and didn't screw up or get hemmed in too much.
- It's no fun assignment to stick Strome on a fourth line role, but when Casey Cizikas is injured and you have the luxury of a bunch of good centers, why not use it? The center has the most influence on a line, and Strome has proven he can influence even the toughest linemates.
- When the Isles were controlling play through much of the second, Blues fans around me were angst-ridden, complaining about how the puck wasn't coming to our end of the ice, and wondering why the Blues had "let up." It's funny, hockey fans say the same shit everywhere.
- Also: Is it ever more clear that goals -- the most important event in hockey -- are nonetheless only partly based on doing the right things? All that pressure, and the tying goal came off a late counterattack from a faceoff. But as observers we lump it all together, and then when the bounces go right we think it's all fine, and when they wrong we think it's a disaster and I told you so and why do I watch this because it's not like I enjoy anything short of 82-0?
- Speaking of which: There was a moment where Alex Steen could've made it 3-0 but for inches. And a moment when the Isles could've made it 3-2 but for bounces. This is hockey.
- I had told my Blues fan friends that at 5-on-5 this would be a really entertaining game, but on special teams the Isles could falter. Suddenly they think I'm smart.
- The linesman interruptus of the Ryan Reaves v. Eric Boulton fight was hilarious. Fans roundly booed the interruption -- Blues fans LOVE a fight -- but while not staged, I kind of like the idea of cutting the shenanigans if the combatants are going to take too long to commence shenaniging.
- Special teams are easy to see on TV because the action is restricted to a zone. But for the record, in person I saw nothing to change my opinion that the Islanders PK approach with the forwards is wrong, all wrong.
- Blues fans -- some of whom treat Barrett Jackman like Brian Strait -- laughed and laughed when he scored his first goal of the season while left wide open for a point shot. I cried. And cursed.
- Speaking of which, Nick Leddy makes Strait better in the offensive zone, but they don't seem to be in sync when hemmed in their own zone. I probably don't need to say more about Strait.
- That said, since this always becomes a Strait vs. Matt Donovan thing, Donovan can have his own troubles in his own zone and on the rush. I feel like when he's confident -- and they can't have done much for his confidence this season -- he is absolutely on. But when he's hesitating, it affects his whole game. I always want him to be better. Maybe if given time like Hickey, he'd at least find a consistent level (not saying that level would match Hickey's).
- Steve Ott, a noted tool, targets whoever he can find and spent a lot of time curiously targeting Donovan on this night. Donovan handled it perfectly. We could hear Ott's slash on Brock Nelson all the way up in the stands, yet of course Ott whined.
My overall takeaway from watching in person: The Isles were great in the second period, but couldn't maintain that for the whole game. That said, I think they had some tough luck in the first, and started the third off well until the Blues got that go-ahead goal on the counterattack, a fat rebound.
It's funny when you see it in person with an analytical mind, recognizing which plays will go which way in the fancy stats and how different contexts and line changes offer more background. The difference in this game was around the two nets, and I'm not talking about goaltending. (Because, you know, we don't talk about goaltending.)
While shots were level or even in the Isles favor for much of the game, the biggest issue was the Isles could not get access to the front of the Blues' net for rebounds, while the Blues routinely had free reign on rebounds and activity around the Isles' net.
So: Travis Hamonic and Johnny Boychuk cannot return soon enough.
By the way, if you're ever planning to see the Isles in St. Louis or anywhere in the Midwest, by all means drop me a line. No money involved, but on your deathbed you will receive total consciousness. Which is nice.