The New York Islanders began 2018 the way they closed out 2017: A lopsided loss, with long stretches of frustratingly lost play, and more lost ground on the rest of the Metropolitan Division.
Tonight it was a 5-1 loss to the Boston Bruins — nowhere as clueless as Sunday’s loss in Denver, but still pretty deflating.
If the Islanders were winning early this season thanks to (unsustainable) high scoring overcoming poor goaltending, their recent stabilized goaltending has not been enough to overcome a drying up of their scoring and continued lethargic play.
In his sixth consecutive start, Jaroslav Halak faced over 35 shots yet again (tonight’s total: 37) and played pretty well throughout. To be clear, he is not giving them game-stealing performances, and I wonder whether he even has that kind of “lights out” performance in him anymore. But he is facing repeated odd-man rushes and fairly dangerous chances from in tight and giving the Isles a chance to overcome them.
But they’re not. Not even close.
First Period: We can work with this
The Bruins have had their way with the Islanders lately, and they are one of just two NHL teams never to lose at Barclays Center. But the Isles had a decent start — promising even, relative to recent performances — and outshot the Bruins 12-8 in the opening period, though to my eyes the Bruins had more high-danger chances (granted, that could have been my own sense of dread talking).
Each team killed off one penalty in the period, and they traded lone goals. A little over a minute after Danton Heinen opened scoring for the Bruins at 8:17, Jordan Eberle pounced on a fortunate bounce off an offensive zone faceoff and waited out Tuukka Rask to tie it up.
That let the Isles reach the intermission tied 1-1, but alas, it was the only Islanders goal of the night.
Second Period: I guess we can’t.
The event that sent things on a losing course was an unlucky play: A shot to the front of the net caromed and looped over Halak, over the goal and behind the net. As Halak struggled to locate the puck’s landing, Patrice Bergeron found it, went around the other side and bounced a shot off Halak’s leg and in.
It’s the second game in a week where something like that has happened to Halak, but I don’t think it’s so much an indictment of him as it is a reflection that when it rains it pours: The Isles aren’t catching any breaks, they’re not creating any of their own, and they’re helpless to overcome simple deficits like they did when they were a “confident” bunch in the first third of the season.
Whereas the opening period’s play and scoreboard indicated it could be either team’s night, nothing about the final 40 minutes looked that way.
Third Period: Welp.
Bergeron’s goal only made it 2-1, which is an entirely surmountable hockey score and is how things stood almost to the halfway point of the third period. But while in the first period the Islanders looked like they maybe knew what they were doing, the rest of the second and most of the third was all Boston, slowing play down with tiring cycles around the perimeter and daring the Isles to stop them.
Shots were an inexcusable 17-8 in the second period and 12-6 in the third, but I’d venture to say a comparison of zone time would be an even more extreme deficit. The Isles simply never spent time in Boston’s zone, and looked powerless to keep the Bruins from setting up shop in theirs.
A pretty curious series of gaffes gave the Bruins what felt like (and later proved to be) an insurmountable lead at 3-1. With Ryan Pulock going off for a change, Cal Clutterbuck tried to stickhandle through a rather talented Bruins forward in David Pastrnak.
Pastrnak stripped him, creating a two-on-one with Brad Marchand.
Scott Mayfield was the one, and he tried to do everything: play the pass and then play the shot, which Pastrnak ate up by faking a shot before sending a pass to Marchand who had plenty of time. Halak got over as much as he could, but Marchand was able to put it high corner.
Pulock was at the bench and no one hopped on. Just watched steal and goal.— Arthur Staple (@StapeNewsday) January 3, 2018
The Bruins fully put the game away with five minutes to go when Tim Schaller knocked his own rebound in out of mid-air on another odd-man rush.
With a late power play the Islanders pulled Halak for a sixth attacker but just about refused to shoot the puck. Soon after the penalty expired, Noel Acciari sent one into the empty net from his own zone.
The New Coach Sounds Like the Old Coach
I am not the type who rips everything the coaches say when they are asked to give a more elaborate answer than “long season, shit happens” to explain why the same players perform at dramatically different levels than they performed at other times. An oft overlooked truth is that individual players, and teams, seldom are truly as good or bad as their highest and lowest moments and the W’s and L’s (especially in the three-point/shootout/3-on-3 era) we attach to them would indicate.
So pretty much no verbiage from the coach suffices when things are really bad, just as flowering praise is often overdone when everything seems to be going in and every creative play ends up a scoring chance rather than a dastardly turnover. He can say everything just right after a big loss, but if nothing changes the next game suddenly he looks clueless unless he finds another brilliant way to phrase it.
That said, Doug Weight is sounding a lot like Jack Capuano lately, calling to “swagger” and “confidence” and “mojo” and such:
“Adversity is hitting us between the eyes right now as a group. We have three really big games and we have to figure it out. We have to get back our mojo, our fierceness that we seem to have let drift.”
Doug Weight: “Adversity is hitting us between the eyes right now as a group. We have three really big games and we have to figure it out. We have to get back our mojo, our fierceness that we seem to have let drift.” #Isles pic.twitter.com/cCBQEyvrxF— New York Islanders (@NYIslanders) January 3, 2018
Which, I mean, he’s not exactly wrong here: When a collective performance depends on sequences of 15 to 19 different players doing things and making decisions of 53% probable success at different times rather than 47% probable success, human mental frailties can play a role. You don’t have to work in an office to notice wavering individual effort trickle into the performance of others, and you don’t have to be superstitious to wonder at times why “nothing is working for us, I can’t have nice things.”
Further, you can play poorly but John Tavares or Mathew Barzal or a goalie (heh) can save your ass, so you feel better the next time out, and suddenly you’re “on a roll” even though you only played truly well (and by “well” I mean, like 3 to 7% better than the opponents, who each have their own issues) in two out of the four games or something.
Anyway, I get what Weight is saying. But those answers provide us no insight into how they might get out of this, and thus far he has been a coach who is pretty clear in his public statements. So they sound short on ideas. Until their better players get hot again — because the bottom half of the roster has at virtually no point chipped in when the top guys don’t carry them — the Isles look stuck.
It’s off to Philadelphia for a game Thursday, then Friday night at home vs. the Penguins and Sunday afternoon vs. the Devils. They end the night outside of a playoff spot. When a team is struggling this badly, you never know what will break it.
But they need something, and fast.