The New York Islanders have five games left on their schedule crammed into an intense closing week. The team is hardly winding down the season on a positive note. As the season comes to a close, the Islanders poor overall play has many fans and experts throughout the league wondering about this team.
Saturday’s 5-0 loss at home to the Pittsburgh Penguins was just the latest example of the team’s unacceptable recent performances. This was a big game with huge playoff implications against a division rival and the team played uninspired hockey.
“Clearly we weren’t very good,” captain John Tavares admitted after the game. “The execution was poor, we seemed very flat. There’s just no excuses for that effort. It’s embarrassing, starting with myself…It was a big game at an important time of the year and to play the way we did is unacceptable.”
The Islanders have not played a complete, 60-minute game for some time. Against weaker teams, they can often get away with it. They have beaten also-rans like the Hurricanes and Blue Jackets by playing 10-15 minutes of good hockey. But that will not work against playoff teams. The Islanders record in their last eight games against playoff contenders is 1-6-1 and the team has been outscored 30-12 in those games.
There are plenty of issues to address and the team knows it. One problem that has been a constant throughout most of the season is a lack of consistent secondary scoring.
The top line produces too much of the team’s offense, mostly courtesy of Tavares. The fourth line provides energy and heart and occasional scoring, but the second and third lines just haven’t been adding enough punch. Ryan Strome, Josh Bailey, Mikhail Grabovski (when healthy), Nikolay Kulemin, Brock Nelson, Shane Prince and Anders Lee all need to contribute more offensively.
Head coach Jack Capuano knows his team is not hitting on all cylinders. After the Pittsburgh loss, he told the media, “I don’t think our secondary guys are doing anything now to help us win…Your secondary guys have to be a factor. Our guys have to be better. It’s not like we’ve got a lot of guys in the bullpen that we can put in there so they’ve got to pick it up.”
The Islanders do lack depth up front. The players sitting in the press box like Eric Boulton and Steve Bernier cannot be counted on to provide a lot of offensive production. They are role players who can fill in adequately as bottom-six forwards. One problem the Islanders have had all season is that offensive forwards have no realistic fear of being benched if they don’t produce because of the team’s lack of realistic alternatives up front.
Defensive depth is also a problem right now. The loss of Travis Hamonic is a painful one for the Isles. With the exception of Tavares, Hamonic is probably the team’s most difficult player to replace because they don’t have anybody else on the roster able to fill his role. Hamonic is the most consistent defensive defenseman the Islanders have and he averages nearly 24:00 per night while often playing against the opposition’s best offensive players.
Capuano has turned to Marek Zidlicky to replace Hamonic in the lineup and prefers to play veterans Brian Strait and Zidlicky rather than younger players like Ryan Pulock or Scott Mayfield.
“For me [I look for] guys who have been there before when there’s a little bit of pressure,” Capuano told Newsday after Saturday’s defeat.
True, with Zidlicky and Strait, you know what you’re going to get, but they also aren’t going to improve much at this stage of their careers. Had Capuano given Pulock, Mayfield and Pelech (before his injury) more playing time earlier in the season, they have the potential to lift their games to another level.
Regardless of who plays, the defense needs to stop turning the puck over and needs to play a stronger game especially in their own zone.
“We just have to manage the puck in between the blue lines,” veteran defenseman Johnny Boychuk said after the Penguins game. He also added, “We need to talk a lot more on the ice and help each other out.”
Goaltending has also been a problem since starter Jaroslav Halak went down on March 8. Since then, backup Thomas Greiss seems to be tiring and his performance has been uneven. JF Berube has looked shaky, giving away the first goal Saturday against Pittsburgh and giving up too many bad goals at key times.
Neither goalie much playoff experience. Greiss has appeared in only one NHL playoff game while Berube has yet to make a postseason appearance at the NHL level and has only played in seven career regular season games.
Teams that make long playoff runs are usually backed by strong goaltending that keeps them in every game and steals a few key contests that a team doesn’t necessarily deserve to win. Neither Greiss nor Berube is playing well enough to fit that description right now.
The Islanders have five games remaining and four of them are against teams that are playoff bound or still in contention for the postseason. They have their work cut out for them. This team needs to improve their play if they hope to qualify for the postseason and maybe even win a playoff round for the first time since 1993. Right now, the way they’re playing just isn’t good enough.
ESPN has reported that the NHL’s ice guru, Dan Craig, has been called into the Barclays Center to address the poor ice conditions at the arena.