“Recent Islanders teams have struggled to put it all together for the first time, but the current Isles team can do something those former teams couldn’t do: They can remember what has made them successful in the recent past.”
The Islanders have been here before. Since the rebuild began half a decade ago, the team has experienced losing streaks. Isles teams have been decimated by injuries and they’ve had Novembers that couldn’t end quickly enough. Recent Islanders teams have struggled to put it all together for the first time, but the current Isles team can do something those former teams couldn’t do: They can remember what has made them successful in the recent past.
While the players on this team aren’t resting on last year’s accomplishments, those accomplishments constantly remind them that they’re capable of being great. The Isles are well aware of the standings and aren’t happy about them. Still, it raises everyone’s confidence level when players can look around and see a room full of guys with whom they’ve already had success.
Captain John Tavares spoke about how last year’s playoff run helps the team’s mindset, but acknowledged that the Isles still have a lot to prove: “We’re just trying to find our game now and understand the importance now. We don’t think we’re going to get out of it because of what happened last year, I think you have to go out there and work hard…
“We have to make a better commitment in a lot of areas of our game. It has to be better. If it’s not, we’re not going to get out of this.”
He continued, ”I’m sure you can draw on the experiences and know that when we play our game good results come, but you have to bear down and make a commitment and put the work in.
“Talking about it or knowing you did it before is great, but we have to go and physically be much better with all those little details that make a big difference in the game.”
Matt Martin, who has also been with the Isles through the highs and lows, discussed how different this year is for the team: “It’s huge. Everyone in this room has had a little bit of success together, making the playoffs. In saying that too, we’ve also gone through these tough times together and generally things like this bring you closer…
“No one really expects us to do anything except our friends and our families and the guys in this dressing room. It’s up to us to turn things around and play with more urgency and start finding ways to win games.”
Coach Jack Capuano also spoke about how helpful it is that his players know how good they can be: “That’s the positive side of it. We can’t change the way we that we need to play. We’ve got a lot of the same guys. Unfortunately, we can’t do anything about the injuries. It is what it is.“
He added, “It’s important that you have the same guys because they know they have success when they play a certain way.”
The biggest area in which the Islanders need to improve is their special teams play. The power play has been ineffective lately, with Lubomir Visnovsky’s injury depriving the team of a true quarterback from the point.
Without that dynamic threat on the back end, opposing penalty killers have been cheating down to the lower half of the zone. That limits the room Tavares, Thomas Vanek, and Kyle Okposo have to work off the boards and out of the corners.
The Isles need to get Andrew MacDonald and Frans Nielsen more involved, at least to open up the zone. Having them handle pucks at the blue line would bring penalty killers up in the zone and provide more space down low for the forwards. Having MacDonald and Nielsen drive towards the weak-side post more often could also create and open up passing lanes.
The Isles’ penalty kill has struggled mightily and is currently ranked at the bottom of the league. The biggest problem seems to be that it lacks an identity. It’s neither an aggressive penalty kill that constantly challenges possession, nor a passive one in which the killers back off and basically just guard the net.
The penalty killing unit has also been hurt by the injuries to both Brian Strait and Lubomir Visnovsky. Strait is a physical defenseman who blocks shots and gets in passing lanes, and is strong enough to move big forwards from the front of the net. Visnovksy, the Isles’ smartest and quickest defenseman, is great at gaining and keeping possession of the puck.
As a unit, the Islanders need to improve their communication and their recognition, reading the play and anticipating what the opposing power play might try to do next. They need to focus on staying in the shooting and passing lanes through the middle of the ice. Putting a little more pressure on puck carriers might also help, but when killing a penalty it’s more important to know when to challenge and pursue than it is to constantly pursue.
Face-offs are another simple but big problem for the Islanders’ penalty kill. Every penalty kill begins with a face-off in the defensive zone. A face-off win generally leads to clearing the puck, but losing the face-off means the power play can set up immediately – with a full two minutes to work. Frans Nielsen and Casey Cizikas, the two Isles’ centers who kill penalties, are only winning 41.9% and 41% of their respective shorthanded face-offs. If those numbers improve, the Islanders’ penalty killing should improve as well.
Capuano spoke Tuesday about what he wants to see from his team, and effort is a big part of it: “When you work, things happen for you. It doesn’t matter how skilled you are. You have to be tough to play against and that’s what we were last year, down the stretch. “
He continued, “You can’t get beat off the wall. That’s something our guys see, and they have to understand that. They have to believe in one another and trust one another, but at the end of the day you have to win your battles. I’ve been saying that since day one. Nothing changes.
“You know what? We don’t deserve to get as many power plays as we’ve got. Some guys aren’t working as hard as they can work… When it comes down to it, guys have to hold themselves accountable in that room and they have to play the game for sixty minutes.”
The Islanders begin an important four-game home stand Wednesday against the Winnipeg Jets at 7pm. Follow @MattSaidman on Twitter for Isles news and updates throughout the week.