Can the Islanders Catch the Lightning in a Bottle?
Preview: Islanders (1-1-0, 2 pts, 4th in Atlantic, 11th in East)
The Islanders are coming off of a pair of games in which they have failed to put together 60 good minutes of hockey. A disappointing performance against the Panthers on Saturday was followed up by one good period and two "hang on for dear life" periods in Monday's matinee against the Wild. As discussed in Rob McGowan's post here at The Checking Line on Tuesday, New York's young forward unit is having difficulty getting pucks to the net. Rob also keys in on the Isles' difficulty staying out of the box through 120 minutes of competition. Against the highly skilled and often lethal power play of the Tampa Bay Lightning who face off in Uniondale tonight, the Islanders will need to play a much more disciplined hockey game.
Lightning (1-1-1, 3 pts, 2nd in Southeast, 6th in East)
The Lightning are coming off a high scoring affair, losing 6-5 in a shootout in Washington, D.C against the Capitals. They opened the season with a 5-1 win in Carolina and followed up with a 4-1 loss to the defending Stanley Cup Champion Bruins in Boston. This is Tampa Bay’s fourth game in a five game road trip to start the season. Martin St. Louis, Ryan Malone and Teddy Purcell are off to the hottest starts, each notching three points in their opening three games.
Forwards: The Islanders young forwards entered the season with a good amount of hype about how they would be a "team to watch." Through two games, most of the forwards seem to be watching right along with those of us at home. For an offense that had five 20 goal scorers last season, they have managed just 42 shots through 2 games. Last year's breakout Calder Trophy candidate Michael Grabner has been nearly invisible through two games, while young third liners Josh Bailey and Blake Comeau have yet to record a shot. The Islanders will likely need to near double their shot total from last game to stay competitive against the explosive Lightning.
Seen Stamkos? The whole NHL is on notice as the young phenom has already shared one Rocket Richard Trophy (with Sidney Crosby) and is only getting better. The Lightning also continue to boast ageless wonder, and former Vermont Catamount, Martin St. Louis and their oft-maligned superstar captain, Vincent Lecavalier. Interesting story to note for Islanders fans is the young rookie who will be playing on one of the top two lines, Brett Connolly. For those of us who were obsessed with the 2010 "post-Tavares" draft, Connolly is a familiar name. Originally thought of as a possible top-3 pick, uncertainty surrounding a hip injury caused Brett to fall on draft day. After the Islanders selected a Swiss wunderkind by the name of "el Nino," GM Steve Yzerman and Tampa Bay wasted no time heading to the podium to select the 6' 2", 181 pound young forward. Connolly has impressed in his first two NHL games.
Defense: Allowing just 3 goals through 2 games is the type of improvement the Islanders are looking for from their back end this year - despite the fact that they've only managed to score 2. The 'team defense' the squad began to play during its inspiring run in last season's second half (even while using almost a dozen defenseman) appears to have carried into the 2011-2012 season, for which Islanders fans can be grateful - especially since veteran workhorse and team captain Mark Streit has returned. Travis Hamonic has picked up from where he left off in his rookie campaign, playing big and playing big minutes (he led the team in TOI during Monday's game with 23:16). After shaking the rust off during Saturday's home opener (that's putting it nicely), Andrew MacDonald looks to be back to form as well, knocking home a Power Play goal and playing his now-expected well-rounded defensive game. Only veteran Mike Mottau is struggling out of the gate, looking as though he needs to get his legs going a little more to keep up with the pace of today's game. Certainly missing the better part of last season did not do him any favors.
The Lightning defense will be missing Mattias Ohlund for this contest, but features the 'runner-up' in the 2009 draft, Victor Hedman, chosen by the Lightning right after the Islanders named John Tavares the #1 overall pick. Hedman has looked strong so far this season, giving indications that he is rising towards being a franchise defenseman at the NHL level. Hedman skates on the top defensive unit alongside former Islanders first round selection Eric Brewer. Heavy-shooting Pavel Kubina, defensive-minded Brett Clark, and Marc-Andre Bergeron (Hey! We know him!) man the 3-5 slots. In the sixth and final defensive spot, former Ranger and Long Island native Matt Gilroy started the first two games while Bruno Gervais (We know him too! Hi, Chef!) watched from the press box. However, Gervais got the nod in the Lightning's last game against the division-rival Capitals and posted an assist to go along with his first goal in 57 games. Head Coach Guy Boucher acknowledged that it would be tough to keep Gervais out of the lineup (keep him in, please!) heading to Long Island to face his former team. Hometown Gilroy or Chef Bruno will likely occupy the 6th spot when the Lightning take the ice at the Old Barn.
Goaltending: Al Montoya has done everything the Islanders coaching staff could have hoped for and reasonably expected from the goaltending position through the first two games. While much "controversy" has been made of this decision from a variety of media sources, Head Coach Jack Capuano made it clear early in training camp that he would play the goaltender who gave the team the best chance to win. Montoya outplayed Rick DiPietro and Evgeni Nabakov during the preseason, in addition to finishing last season in strong fashion. He earned the Opening Night nod and his play has done nothing to indicate a switch is necessary.
The Lightning boast former Islander, and current Old Man Time, Dwayne Roloson as their starting netminder. Roloson has played well in his two starts, posting a save percentage of .921 to open the season. While backup Mathieu Garon is serviceable, the Lightning will go as far this year as the spry young knees of the 42 year old Roloson will take them. Roloson expressed that he enjoyed his time as a goaltender on Long Island, and his return venture to the Coliseum will be an interesting storyline.
Edge: Assuming Coach Capuano sticks with 'El Cubano', Even. If Rick DiPietro gets his first start of the season, edge Lightning
Special Teams: The high-octane offense of the Lightning makes for an exciting and dangerous Power Play unit. The Islanders have opened their season doing an incredible job on the penalty kill. However the Islanders will certainly be tempting fate if they take as many penalties against the Lightning as they have through their first two games this season. The tandem of Stamkos – St. Louis – Lecavalier makes a more formidable first Power Play forward unit than probably 90% of teams in the NHL. Despite the electric penalty killing tandem of Frans Nielsen and Michael Grabner, who between them netted 13 shorthanded goals last season, the Islanders would do themselves a favor to not test themselves in this department against Tampa Bay. The Islanders scored a Power Play goal against the Wild on Monday, but have not experienced the same consistent success that they appeared to have found during the preseason. Look for new Assistant Coach Doug Weight to have some tweaks to the PP Units in the next few games.
Coaching: Islanders Head Coach Jack Capuano threw caution to the wind when he decided to dress goaltender Al Montoya for each of the team’s first two games. He is backing up his preseason statement that the goaltender who gave the team the best chance to win would get the time between the pipes. Playing Montoya also proves to the players that this season is about winning, and nothing else. They will all have to earn their playing time. Lightning head coach Guy Boucher made an aggressive coaching decision during the team’s second game, giving rookie Brett Connolly more ice time than some of the team’s other, higher paid forwards. Boucher is also under the gun to prove that the team’s journey to the Eastern Conference Finals last season was not a fluke.
Overall Edge: Lightning
My Prediction: Despite being out-matched on the score sheet, the Islanders get a breakthrough effort from their new $33 million man, John Tavares, who has looked extremely dangerous in the team’s first two games. Behind a 3 point night from Tavares in the form of 2 goals and an assist, the Islanders will go on to win by a score of 4-2 with the help of an empty net goal to seal the home victory.