The Canadiens are on Long Island Thursday to play one of the teams between themselves and the final playoff spot. The Islanders are only a single point in front of the Habs but they have two games in hand and have been playing some of their most consistent hockey of the season, despite suffering injuries in the last few games to three members of their defence corps.
New York has picked up 16 of a possible 22 points in their last 11 games (compared to Montreal picking up 11 of 22) and while their chances of reaching the postseason are not much better than the Habs, they have gained confidence lately. Their most recent two points — gained from a 0-0 regulation tie and then winning the post-game skills competition in Philadelphia — came with the Isles down to five defencemen.
But an excellent performance from goalie Evgeni Nabokov was the difference. He stopped 45 shots, many of the spectacular variety to move his personal record to 7-2-0 with 1.31 goals-against average in his last nine starts.
Nabokov is a pending UFA this summer and considered a target for teams looking to pick up a goaltender by the trade deadline, but he has a full no-trade clause and says he doesn’t want to move. His fine play makes you wonder if GM Garth Snow would even want to part with the former Sharks standout, considering all the goaltending problems the Isles have had in recent years.
Asked how he did it against the Flyers on Tuesday, Nabokov laughed and replied, “I have no answer. We stuck with the system, the boys were working their butts off and skating hard. We were down to five D again, and the guys controlled their forwards and our forwards collapsed when they had to.”
Dylan Reese, who was skating on the first defence pairing with Andrew MacDonald, suffered a knee injury, the third game in a row that an Islanders blueliner was hurt. It forced McDonald to play over 29 minutes.
The Isles’ blueline corps could be vulnerable as a result of their recent injuries, as the 45 shots against in their last game indicates.
Milan Jurcina had his elbow sliced last Friday during a win in Ottawa, then Travis Homonic needed surgery after being hit in the nose with the puck the next night against the Sabres. Neither Homonic nor Reese will play against the Habs, but Jurcina skated Wednesday and may return for the game. Aaron Ness made his NHL debut Tuesday and another player, either rookie Matt Donovan or Ty Wishart, could be called up from AHL Bridgeport if Jurcina can’t go.
It’s been a hard year in some ways for ex-Hab Mark Streit, the Isles captain. He’s minus-20 on the year (second to Jurcina’s minus-21), but that’s up from minus-24. His decision-making can be flawed, as Canadiens fans know, but he’s still the engine of the Isles’ power play which is sixth best in the NHL (19.8 percent). Their PK is good as well, eighth in the league at 85.1 percent.
All the attention this team has gotten recently starts with centre John Tavares, who beat out Evgeni Malkin as NHL First Star of the Month in January — quite a feat considering how dominant Malkin has been. He led the league in scoring in January, finishing with 9 goals and 13 assists for 22 points. He has 53 points on the season, tied for ninth in the league. The biggest improvement most see in Tavares this season has been his skating.
His chemistry with left winger Matt Moulson is exceptional. Moulson’s 23 goals are the Isles’ best, one more than Tavares. However, neither has a point in the last three games (which either means they are due or they are slumping). Right winger Kyle Okposo has shaken off a poor start and has 16 points in his last 18 games, rejoining that line recently after being replaced for a while by P.A. Parenteau.
But this is essentially a one-line team offensively. The Isles have scored 126 goals this season and the first line has accounted for nearly half.
Parentau and Okposo have each contributed when they’ve been on the second line but Michael Grabner, one of the game’s very best skaters, has not consistently applied his great offensive skills. It hasn’t helped that centre Marty Reasoner has been out with a broken thumb since Jan. 6 and won’t be back for at least another week. Centre Frans Nielsen is a good two-way centre but not really a top six player. Nielsen might have been dealt at the deadline as another pending UFA, but was just signed to a four-year deal this week, so he’s in the team’s plans.
Things are pretty much flat offensively among the bottom six. Second year coach Jack Capuano has noted the lack of secondary scoring as one of the team’s top weaknesses. Veteran Brian Rolston has become something like this team’s version of Scott Gomez — his former Devils teammate. At over $5 million a season, Rolston has been a healthy scratch for the last four games. He has 4 goals, 4 assists and is a minus-11 in 41 games.
One of the more interesting stats concerning the Islanders is that while they rank 10th (tied with the Habs) in the league in the number first period goals they’ve scored, they are next to last in goals scored in the second period and tied for 26th in goals scored during the third. Wonder if that means they are not a well-conditioned team.
Here’s how they might line up on Thursday in Uniondale, and we’ll pencil in Jurcina for the moment:
Matt Moulson, John Tavares, Kyle Okposo
Michael Grabner, Frans Nielsen, P.A. Parenteau
Matt Martin, Josh Bailey, Rhett Rhakhshani
Tim Wallace, Jay Pandolfo, Nino Niederreiter
Andrew MacDonald, Milan Jurcina
Mark Streit, Steve Staios
Mark Eaton, Aaron Ness