With two key injuries on the blueline and a generally average at best form in recent weeks, the New York Islanders face a critical run up to the All-Star break with five of six remaining games at home, all against beatable opponents.
Come out of it with a good record, and they will have survived the worst of the injuries to Johnny Boychuk and Travis Hamonic and either fixed or at least temporarily masked (again) their flaws. Screw it up like Saturday in Philadelphia, and those flaws will continue to chafe and haunt the final third of the season.
It begins, because Saturday's rollover in Philadelphia might as well be the end of something else, tonight at home against the Columbus Blue Jackets, who now feature Seth Jones after shipping Ryan Johansen off to Nashville.
It's the third meeting of the season, with the Islanders winning easily in Todd Richards' finale as coach and then being lucky to take the bonus point via the Bailey-Okposo 2-on-0 OT winner. This time the Blue Jackets are without Nick Foligno as well as their top two goalies.
Thomas Greiss will start in goal.
With the multi-week injuries to Boychuk and Hamonic, the question of what is the right mix of replacements lingers on. Ryan Pulock is the hot prospect but also the youngster yet to be recalled other than an emergency non-game appearance. Adam Pelech is the steady no-frills prospect deemed most ready by the gang in Bridgeport at the time of his recall. Scott Mayfield is the most physical of them, with the most NHL reps, but he sits tonight after a one-game appearance next to his Bridgeport partner, Pelech.
Among them at the bottom of the depth chart is Marek Zidlicky (35 games), who seems to be rested once each time the game schedule gets busy, and Brian Strait (25 games), who is used more often than fans would ever imagine or any stats analyst would recommend, but garners coaching staff praise for being that guy.
Tonight Zidlicky returns to again pair with Thomas Hickey, while Mayfield sits to let Pelech pair with Strait in a battle for stay-at-home supremacy.
Capuano says he talked to Snow this AM about Pulock. "He's still learning, he's still young but he does have that offensive ability."— Arthur Staple (@StapeNewsday) January 12, 2016
Capuano said Mayfield played OK on Sat., wants a better puck-mover in with Zidlicky. My guess is Pulock will be up by Sunday for a look.— Arthur Staple (@StapeNewsday) January 12, 2016
Is the long-clamored-for Pulock debut coming? Not tonight. But the possibility is related to what's going on, beyond the injuries...
While Strait (and Pelech and Mayfield) are not the type to drive insightful breakouts like Hickey, Zidlicky (when he's not caught on the forecheck) or Nick Leddy do so well, without question the Isles offensive ills aren't just stemming from the blueline.
The forwards are getting hemmed in and are too often short of ideas -- and perhaps cohesion -- while breaking out and trying to sustain attacks the other way. After Saturday, it had even the usually (publicly) supportive head coach wondering where their engines went:
"I think our forwards need to realize that they got to take the game over," Capuano said. "From our forward standpoint, the four lines that we've got, we've got to get a little bit more. Somehow, some way, you've got to dig deep and you've got to find a way. You've got one goal in the last six periods of hockey. I don't care what kind of defense that you play; at some point you're going to have to get a couple goals to win a game."
It's not often that you'll hear any NHL coach (REAL or otherwise) stray from the scripture of "defense first, everything flows from solid defense," but this is clearly one of those times.
It's not simply a matter of the forwards resting on good defensive work though; each line, and most disturbingly the top line, has found itself skating in lethargic circles watching the opponent sustain offensive pressure around them.
If the ills are irreversible and this 42-game version of the 2015-16 Islanders is ultimately how we'll remember them, it's probably best they find that out now, while changes can still be made. But if they can snap out of it and start recreating the 2014-15 squad we remember, well, it's high time for them to actually do that, too.
So where next then? Yep, that's why they play the games.
Leave your First Islanders Goal picks for tonight this way. Don't pick Mayfield.