The Canadiens try build on their dominant performance against Carolina to win their second in a row and get points in their fifth consecutive game when they travel to Long Island on Thursday to take on the Islanders, the last place team in the East.
What can you say about the poor Islanders that hasn’t already been regurgitated hundreds of times? They are stuck in an obsolete arena, have the league’s lowest payroll and — despite rosy predictions at the season’s outset that this club could be a playoff contender — they are in great danger of sinking into their annual early season free-fall that effectively eliminates them from the postseason before the holidays.
They have won only one game of their last 11, getting only five of a possible 22 points, and have scored just 20 goals during that slide. This comes after winning three of four to start the season.
They have scored only 31 goals, lowest in the league (although they have also played the fewest games, but still average 2.07 goals a game, 29th in the league), they allow 3.70 goals a game (23rd), have yet to win on the road, have been shut out three times (tied for worst in the league), have no players with a positive plus-minus rating and — while they have a talented group of youngsters (especially up front), battle hard most nights and are in lots of games — they sadly usually end up playing just well enough to lose.
They are not pushovers however. They have talented skaters throughout the lineup, many of whom are mired in slumps.
The Isles problems start in goal where a dreaded three-headed monster dwells and each of the trio is fighting for games. Evgeni Nabokov, who lost to the Rangers on Tuesday 4-2 (including an empty-netter) has dropped three straight, so its possible either the oft-injured Rick DiPietro or Al Montoya could be in there on Thursday. Montoya, the surprise performer last season, is statistically the best of the three, but DiPietro has the bazillion dollar contract that extends into the 23rd Century and could get the call.
Most observers believe the Isles will eventually trade Nabokov to a club (Toronto? Columbus? Colorado?) in need of goaltending and, with the team sliding, there is some impatience that GM Garth Snow hasn’t yet voted Nabby off the Island to get a solid blueliner. Nothing has yet come of that.
The problems are compounded by a defence corps that is not blessed with great speed or mobility as a whole. Nor are they an especially physical group (and neither are the forwards). Captain and former Hab Mark Streit still moves the puck well, has his big shot and logs the most ice time. He’s got a goal and nine assists to lead the d-men. He’s also a team worst minus-8. With the exception of 21-year-old sophomore Travis Hamonic, who seems to have leveled off after a good rookie year, the remainder of the defenceman are vets who might be depth guys on other teams.
Up front, the line of John Tavares between Matt Moulson and Michael Grabner would be a legitimate top unit for most NHL clubs. Small second line centre Frans Neilson has been one of the Isles’ hottest scorers (6 points in the last five games) during this slide and his winger P.A. Parenteau, who the Isles rescued from the Rangers farm system a couple of years ago, ha also put up points. But after that, the secondary scoring the Islanders expected to find has dried up.
GM Garth Snow hoped veteran ex-Devil Brian Rolston would provide some punch, but he’s produced little (2g, 2a). But most culpable are youngsters considered building blocks of the Isles’ future, like Kyle Okposo (0g, 3a), Blake Comeau (no points) and Josh Bailey (1g, 1a). They have been major disappointments for coach Jack Capuano in the early going and he scratched Okposo, a former first rounder, for the Rangers game, the first time Okposo has been scratched in the NHL.
Nineteen-year-old power forward Nino Niederreiter, played his first game of the season vs. the Rangers this week after a preseason injury and AHL rehab assignment. He dressed instead of Okposo and he’ll likely be in the lineup against Canadiens. The fifth overall pick in 2010, Niederreiter had played nine games for the Isles last fall prior to going back to junior.
The Islanders power play is not bad, ranked 12th at 18 percent. Their penalty kill is less successful, 20th in the league at 81.1 percent.
This is how the Isles lined up against the Rangers on Tuesday, but expect changes, with Okposo dressed and someone else, perhaps Bailey, in the press box.
Matt Moulson, John Tavares, Michael Grabner
Brian Rolston, Frans Nielsen, P.A. Parenteau
Blake Comeau, Marty Reasoner, Nino Niederreiter
Matt Martin, Josh Bailey, Jay Pandolfo
Mark Streit, Steve Staios
Andrew MacDonald, Travis Hamonic
Milan Jurcina, Mike Mottau