Maybe you had something better to do on a Friday night than watch the Islanders suffer a 4-0 shutout loss to the Penguins. You missed the game and in the days since, you’ve found yourself wondering about it, wishing there was a way for you to experience the magnificent splendor of that night in great detail.
Maybe you didn’t have anything better to do on the night of January 5th, and you did watch this hockey game. And from the moment the final horn sounded, you’ve been wondering what it would be like to relive it all for a second time. “Will it be as glorious,” you ask yourself, “as it was the first time?” No, it won’t be. It will be far, far more glorious this time around. You have my word on that.
I am recapping this particular game because, as you might expect from a 4-0 loss by a team that just dropped five straight games by a cumulative score of 25-8, this game was perfectly illustrative of the state of this team. It was filled to the brink with examples of the issues that plague it.
Here are my observations from last Friday night’s Beatdown in Brooklyn.
1. Very, very good start. You know things aren’t going well when Butch Goring (“Butchie”) is gloating about the Islanders' "very, very good start” only 75 seconds into the game, just because they managed to spend the opening couple of shifts in Pittsburgh's zone.
2. Odd-Man Rushes Against. The single-most perplexing thing about the Islanders' current slide is the coaching staff's inability to make the adjustments necessary to put a stop to the continuous parade of odd-man rushes against. No NHL team allows a higher rate of scoring chances than the Islanders. Every game seems to bring with it a fresh batch of 2-on-1s and 3-on-1s against poor Jaro Halak.
So why are the Islanders allowing so many odd-man rushes?
3. Pinching. When a defenseman moves up from his position at the offensive blue line, he is “pinching” into the zone. Pinching is inherently risky, which is why a defenseman should only do it in certain situations.
First, a defenseman should only pinch when he's likely to get to the puck first, so said one of the greatest hockey coaches ever: the Islanders very own, the late, great Al Arbour. Butchie just so happened to reveal one of Mr. Arbour’s golden rules during Sunday afternoon’s 5-4 shootout win over the Devils:
“Al Arbour used to say: ‘You pinch to keep the puck in, you don’t pinch to play the man.’”
- Butch Goring
Second, a defenseman shouldn’t pinch unless there’s a nearby forward able to hang back and cover for him. This is a basic principle that transcends any one particular system or style of play. When a defenseman wants to go on offense, whether on a rush or a pinch in the zone, it’s the responsibility of the nearest forward to cover for him.
So if all three forwards are down low in the offensive zone - at or below the goal line - and the puck wheels around the boards, a defenseman should not be pinching in unless he is absolutely certain he’ll get to the puck first and be able to keep it in the zone.
There are other factors, of course, like the score or time of game (defensemen can be more aggressive when their team is trailing and it’s late in the game) as well as what players are on the ice. With all that in mind, let’s take a look at Pittsburgh’s first goal of the game.
4. Penguins Goal #1: And Away We Go
Daniel Sprong puts the Pens up 1-0 on a nice pass from your favorite player and mine, Sidney Crosby. The goal came off a 2-on-1 rush which resulted from a failed pinch into the offensive zone by Dennis Seidenberg, who coach Doug Weight inexplicably decided to play on the top pair with Nick Leddy this game.
This was basically the textbook definition of a horrible pinch by Seidenberg.
First, all three Isles forwards are down low, deep in the zone. He should realize that no one’s got his back if things go wrong.
Second, he has no chance whatsoever to get to the puck first and keep it in. His best-case scenario here is lucking out and impeding Pittsburgh’s breakout attempt.
Third, it’s a scoreless game, the team’s been struggling mightily to suppress scoring chances of late and the best hockey player on earth (who has turned “shitting on the Islanders” into an art form) is on the ice. This was not the time to be taking such a risky gamble.
Seidenberg’s awful pinch leads to a 2-on-1 for the Pens, and Leddy does a poor job defending it. His problem here, oddly, is he doesn’t keep up with the play fast enough. Leddy almost always dives down to the ice in this spot to force the shot. But here he loses track of Sprong and can’t get his stick down in time to block Crosby’s pass. And man does Butchie let him have it.
5. More Bad Pinches. Now let me just acknowledge that I appreciate these are difficult, split-second decisions here. I know how important it is for a defenseman to be decisive and not hesitate when he goes to pinch. I understand mistakes will be made. But things have just gotten absolutely ridiculous with the odd-man rushes the Islanders have been conceding lately.
The following video contains several poor pinches and bad coverages the Islanders had in this game which led directly to odd-man rushes for Pittsburgh.
6. Then They Scored Again. It was Malkin, on the PP, off a one-timer. The Islanders have the second-worst penalty kill in the league by percentage (74.1%). They’re at or near the bottom of the league in a whole bunch of other PK stats I’m not gonna bother rattling off here to you because this is a topic for another day.
7. The Drought Will End. When I heard during the pre-game that Crosby hadn’t scored a goal in eight games, I of course knew he’d score a goal in this game. I knew it and so did you. We all knew it with complete certainty. Congrats to all of us, we nailed it. Crosby finished with one goal and three assists on the evening, factoring into all of Pittsburgh’s offense. He now has scored 107 points in 60 career games vs. the Islanders.
8. Penguins Goal #3: The Watcher
Here’s the goal Crosby scored to break his drought.
You might feel the urge to blame Halak here but the truth is this was just a great play by no. 87. Tavares sticks with him up until he passes the puck away, at which point he stops paying attention to Crosby and watches the puck instead. You can tell by JT’s reaction he knows he screwed up here.
During the post-game, Butchie praised Tavares for doing “a terrific job of watching Crosby” score this goal. Butchie sometimes has glitches while turning his thoughts into words, and the results can be dangerously hilarious. That is why I threw that audio into the above clip. Obviously, saying someone was “watching” on defense is never, ever a compliment. This would be like complimenting someone for failing a test.
9. Penguins Goal #4: Pelech’s Hat Trick
This was a thoroughly atrocious shift by Adam Pelech. I counted three brutal mistakes.
Pelech Mistake #1
It starts out with an ill-advised pinch, which was included in the Bad Pinches video. Sure, the Isles are down 3-0 in the third period and the situation calls for more aggression. But “aggression” does not equal “stupidity.” Pelech has no chance at the puck when he darts in and he takes way too wide of a turn down low in the zone.
Clutterbuck is in position to cover for him, but the puck bounces up in the air and he can’t control it. Once again, Crosby’s on the ice. Look, I know it’s not possible, in real time, to weigh every single factor like I’m doing now. But there needs to be some very basic understanding of risk vs. reward here. There is no reward to be had from this pinch. None. There is no scoring chance that is imminent, no defensive hole that can be exploited if Pelech can just poke the puck free, nothing. It’s just utterly blind and pointless aggression.
So once again, the Penguins get a 2-on-1. Hickey actually does a good job defending it by diving towards the puck-carrier, Sprong, which takes the pass away and forces his hand. The puck bounces towards Crosby, whose sharp-angle shot wheels around the boards towards the blue line.
Pelech Mistake #2
Pelech then inexplicably starts skating to the bench for a change even though the puck is still free in the Islanders zone (with Sprong still behind everyone, no less). Cizikas was wrong to start going off on a change here as well - him and Pelech are right next to each other - but for a defenseman to do this is nothing short of asinine.
Pelech Mistake #3
Here’s the cherry on top. After the puck is kept in the zone and poked in deep (past the way-too-aggressive Hickey and Clutterbuck), Sprong walks in all alone. Now, Pelech actually could’ve gotten back to defend this scoring chance. He had enough time. But he chose not to do so. He opted to “play the pass” instead, treating this play as if it was just another 2-on-1, which it most certainly was not.
The concept of “playing the pass” and letting your goalie try to stop the shot no longer applies when the puck-carrier walks in completely unobstructed like this. I mean this is truly absurd right here. When Sprong is so close to Halak that they can shake hands, you need to force him to pass.
The shot a defenseman is typically willing to concede (and leave up to his goalie) on a standard 2-on-1 is usually one that comes from the circle or farther away, and from somewhat of an angle. It’s a lot more manageable for the goalie than this here, the definition of a point-blank opportunity.
This shot was from the bottom of the circle for fuck’s sake. It does not get any more “high-danger” than that. Pelech’s best bet here would’ve been to dive at the puck like Hickey just did on the preceding 2-on-1. Instead, he stops short to “play the pass” and Sprong walks in and roofs it. With ease.
To be fair, Pelech did play the body on Sprong after the goal was scored. Expect another 4-year contract extension any day now.
10. Chimer-ry Picking
Jason Chimera has been awful this season.
Of the 226 NHL forwards who have played as many EV minutes as him (448) this season, Chimera’s got the 8th-worst shot-attempt differential (45%) and the 3rd-worst scoring-chance differential (41.5%) (per Natural Stat Trick). With his whopping 2 goals and 6 assists in 43 games, he’s got the 9th-lowest scoring rate of this group and the lowest on the team (including defensemen).
These are ghastly numbers.
That he hasn’t been scratched one single time this season is almost inconceivable, considering how terrible the Islanders bottom-six forwards have been, how quick the coach is to sit better players, and how his one “asset” - his straight-ahead speed - is most often on display when he’s flying the defensive zone too early, hoping to catch a breakaway pass that almost never comes.
Here are a few examples of Chimera’s cherry-picking in action, mixed in with a few other disconcerting plays from this game (specifically, instances where the Isles were unable to control the puck following “won” faceoffs).
And look it really doesn’t matter that “all coaches love their grizzled vets,” that this issue isn’t unique to the Islanders. “Well everybody’s doing it” is never good justification for doing anything. And Chimera is not just another run-of-the-mill, unproductive veteran. He’s one of the worst players in the NHL. He struggles to execute the most basic functions on the ice and brings nothing to the table. There’s no offense, there’s no defense, there’s just a red face, two blue eyes and a shitload of scoring chances flooding back the other way.
11. Beat Down and Battered
Towards the end of the debacle that was the Islanders’ 6-1 loss in Colorado on New Year’s Eve, Butchie talked about how it was one of those games the coaching staff should just “throw away the tape” of, presumably because there was nothing to be learned from that kind of game. Because the Islanders surely are a much better team than they were that night.
I’m not so sure about that.
Six of the Islanders’ 18 regulation losses this season have been by 4+ goals (tied for 2nd-most, per Hockey-Reference). Since the start of last season, they’ve lost 13 games by 4+ goals (also tied for 2nd-most), nine of which have occurred since Weight took over.
All this is to say this isn’t some super-rare aberration. The Islanders have been getting smoked with alarming frequency. The coach shouldn’t just “throw away the tape” of a game like this because at this point, that’s just way too much hockey to ignore.
A scoreless game can turn into a three-goal deficit in the blink of an eye. This 4-0 loss wasn’t all that different from the 5-4 shootout win against Jersey that followed it. The Islanders were severely out-played both times out. There’s plenty to learn from in these games.
The lack of awareness and attention to detail, the odd-man rushes allowed, the blown coverages, the lack of intensity, of communication, the incessant turnovers, the cherry-picking and other bad habits - all of this is what’s permeating the Islanders lineup from top to bottom. These things need to improve considerably moving forward if this team wants to sniff a playoff spot.
Otherwise, expect more beatdowns like this to come.