Tonight the New York Islanders hope to halt a three-game losing skid against a quite beatable (but we've heard that before) Philadelphia Flyers squad that is surprisingly as hot as its been all season.
In Philadelphia they're heaping praise on Michael Del Zotto for his recent points tear, which includes a goal in the Flyers 7-4 loss on Long Island last month. But on cue, Broad Street Hockey looks at his underlying numbers to see if anything has really changed other than some pucks going in.
The Flyers are on a nice little run, having won four in a row to pull to NHL-style quasi-.500. But of course, in February that is not good enough, and they remain 10 points away from the East's final playoff spot.
In the Isles camp, some very familiar, nagging sores are exposed in what has otherwise been a fantastic season. Not that you should panic, but just be aware...
With the penalty kill continuing to struggle, and Brian Strait inserted into the lineup for Lubomir Visnovsky (who just returned from injury last week), Jack Capuano's quotes from the morning scrum read like gasoline thrown on the burning, fiery fear among fans that the unresolved PK issues and/or a bizarre lineup decision will be the Isles' undoing at some critical point this spring.
Via nhl.com, on the penalty kill:
"It's not structural," Capuano said. "There's some things we have to look at differently, where the shots are coming from and how they're finding their way through. ... Our discipline is good. It's a matter of getting everything out of your mind, moving forward, and whatever it takes get the job done. We have guys that can do it; we know they can do it."
I'm kind of a broken record on my belief that the PK's chief ill is indeed structural/strategic -- a head-scratching slot overload that leaves point men with lots of merry time and space -- but whatever. The Isles did have a good run recently that wasn't just percentage-based, it least in terms of shots allowed.
But that run seemed more about unsustainable success preventing teams from gaining the zone rather than adjustments on what to do once they've gotten there (which, with the man advantage, most teams will inevitably do). For the whole season, the Islanders' shots-against rate at 4-on-5 of 55.1 per 60 minutes ranks 24th, their Corsi Against ranks 25th.
On re-inserting Strait:
"Brian is one of our better penalty killers as well, so there's a little thought process as that goes," Capuano said. "... To me he's played well. He deserves it. He's one of those guys that sat at the beginning of the year a little bit."
For sure, Capuano is far from the only one who thought Strait played "well" during his recent stint in the lineup for the injured Visnovsky. (Butch Goring was another.) But I'm hard-pressed to find a reason or rationale to play him instead of a healthy Visnovsky. I almost hope there is a minor health knock for Visnovsky because otherwise he is simply not someone to be scratching even at this age.
They are probably thinking about him better clearing people and space around the net and blocking shots though. It's true that's been a variable in some of their recent PK failings, but I worry it's not the underlying issue.
The move makes the Isles weaker at even strength -- which, sure, that's not their biggest concern right now, as 5-on-5 is their strength -- and it makes the pairing with Thomas Hickey all kinds of out of whack. This is not an adventure I'm eager to see play out, and worse, the best case -- the Isles do okay and win -- only reinforces what to me is a mistaken confidence in a less than ideal deployment.
But, on we go with the games, as I understand that's where all of these things are settled. Both teams are expected to start their number-ones in goal, Jaroslav Halak and Steve Mason.
Leave your First Islanders Goal picks for tonight here. Don't pick Visnovsky.