Islanders Prepare for Avalanche

“And with the first overall selection in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, the New York Islanders are proud to select John Tavares.” 

After months of speculation leading up to the 2009 NHL draft, the Islanders rewarded their fan base after a long and painful season by using the first pick to select the longtime #1 ranked player in the draft.  It has been said that when top prospects remain at the top of a draft board for a long period of time, analysts tend to search so hard for their flaws that when they finally find one, it becomes significantly over exaggerated. 

So it was with Tavares, who was ranked at the top of his draft class since about age 14.  Debates actually existed during the 2008 draft as to who would be #1 overall had Tavares been eligible – Tavares or the eventual #1 pick, Steven Stamkos. 

By his draft year, Tavares had broken some guy named Wayne Gretzky’s junior scoring record.  As the year wore on though, hype grew like wildfire around two other highly touted prospects – a Swedish defenseman who played amongst men in the Swedish Elite League and a Canadian speedster and traditional two-way work horse forward. 

With all due respect to Victor Hedman and Matt Duchene, who are both terrific hockey players, and for all of the misses the Islanders have had on draft day, they got this choice 100% right.

Tavares to date has done ‘more with less’ than Duchene in terms of points and has provided more of an impact as the Islanders biggest scoring threat for now the third consecutive season than Hedman would have provided on the blue line. 

Much speculation and analysis surrounded Tavares’ skating ability, as it was easy to be impressed by the smooth strides of Duchene, and some analysts thought the Islanders would do well to choose Duchene.  This year, after an offseason of power skating, Tavares looks to have put many of those concerns to rest.  He is averaging a point per game and looks stronger than ever on the puck.

Though these two teams do not play very often, and both players are extremely happy with how things turned out (Duchene is a childhood Avs fan, Tavares just signed a 6 year/$33 mil extension).  But don’t be fooled by their down-play of any rivalry between them.  Both young men are extremely competitive and want to prove that they deserved to be the #1 overall selection.

Preview:  The Islanders are coming off an embarrassing loss to the Boston Bruins according to the scoreboard and an announcer on national television whose life mission is to see the Islanders fail (*cough*Milbury*cough*).  But for those of you who didn’t get the chance to see the game, do not be fooled by the 6-2 final score.  The Islanders played competitively with the defending Cup champs for almost 50 minutes of the game before 2 defensive breakdowns within a minute saw a 3-2 deficit turn into a blowout-style 5-2 score.  The final goal for the Bruins was courtesy of a David Krejci empty netter.

The Avalanche are a somewhat confusing case thus far this season, with their road record at an outstanding 6-2-1 and their home record at a curious 1-5.  Home ice disadvantage?  So it seems through 15 games for the Avs.  They have struggled of late much like the team they are hosting, posting a 3-6-1 record through their last ten games.  (The Isles are 3-5-2 in their last ten)

Let’s get a look at the on ice match ups.

Forwards: The Islanders looked great in their first game with new-look lines, scoring 4 and an empty netter in a win against the powerhouse Capitals on Saturday.  The offense did manage 2 goals against the Bruins on Monday night, but faltered on two key power plays that gave the Isles the opportunity to tie the game at 3.  Had the Isles forwards come through on either of those man advantages, it could have been a different game.  John Tavares leads the team with 13 points in 12 games, followed by PA Parenteau with 11.  Of the regulars, only Jay Pandolfo and Blake Comeau have not found the score sheet yet this season.  Josh Bailey and Kyle Okposo are still looking for their first goals of the season.  If Bailey, Okposo, or Comeau are able to start finding the back of the net, it would be very good news for the Islanders offensive unit.

The Avalanche have a very young offense, similar to the Islanders, and boast Milan Hejduk (35) as the only forward on their roster over 30 years old.  They also have a number of talented young forwards who, when playing well, round out a very competitive top 6.  Duchene, Paul Stastny, Ryan O’Reilly, Peter Mueller, Kevin Porter, and 2011 first round draft pick Gabriel Landeskog are among the most talented.  Duchene leads the team in points with 12, with O’Reilly (10), Stastny (9), Hejduk (8), and Landeskog (8) also among the team leaders.  The Avs bring a balanced scoring threat to the rink each night.

Edge: Even

Defense:  The Islanders are coming off a game which they were in for almost 50 minutes until on consecutive shifts, their veteran defenseman had “senior moments.”  Steve Staios got burned trying to step up on a play in the neutral zone leading to the Bruins 4th goal, and Mark Eaton completely lost track of his man in front which led to the Bruins 5th (and basically game-clinching) goal.  The Islanders have not gotten much offense from their defensive corps so far this season, which would be a welcome addition for a team that is struggling with secondary scoring.  Only Mark Streit, with 8 points, is within 10 of Tavares’ team leading 13.  Though the dynamic tandem of Andrew MacDonald and Travis Hamonic has drawn the toughest defensive assignments night in and night out, those two youngsters are going to need to contribute offensively a little as well in order for the Isles defenseman to do anything to help their forwards. 

The Avalanche get a lot of help on the offensive end from their defensemen.  Kyle Quincy (10), Ryan Wilson (9), and Erik Johnson (8) are among the team leaders in points.  Many of their points are assists, generated from great outlet passes to their talented and speedy forwards.  The Islanders would do well to take some notes from the way the Avalanche move the puck up the ice to their forwards.  Erik Johnson was acquired last season through a courageous swap of young talent that saw Kevin Shattenkirk and Chris Stewart traded to the Blues.  Johnson is a former 1st overall pick, and if he can emerge as a top defenseman in the league, the Avalanche would take a huge step forward in their  rebuilding efforts. 

Edge:  Avalanche

Goaltending:  For the most part this season, goaltending has not been the problem for the Islanders.  Al Montoya was solid in his starts at the beginning of the season, though the face he has not started a game in a few weeks is starting to become strange.  Rick DiPietro has been as good as can be expected for a goalie that is still getting back into playing at the NHL level.  For the most part, I have been impressed with DiPietro’s starts so far and think he has played even better than his stats indicate.  And despite Evgeni Nabokov’s poor outing on Monday, he too had played solid to this point in the season.  A three headed monster/confusion, sure.  But a problem?  Doesn’t seem that way… yet.

The Avalanche paid the Capitals an arm and a leg this offseason to acquire goaltender Semyon Varlamov.  (The first round draft pick is the arm, the second round draft pick is the leg in this analogy)  Despite Varlamov’s early struggles, the Avalanche did well to also acquire a veteran backup in Jean Sebastian Giguere.  Giguere can play well when called upon and has made a nice transition from every day starter to full time backup – which is difficult for many career number one goalies. 

Edge:  Islanders

Coaching:  The line juggling from Islanders coach Jack Capuano has proven somewhat successful so far, despite the fact that they couldn’t find a key power play goal to tie the game in Boston.  While PA Parenteau clicked with his new line mates, Frans Neilsen and Brian Rolston, there are still three key Islanders offensive pieces that Capuano needs to find a way to get going – Okposo, Bailey and Comeau.  Also becoming a minor storyline is that Al Montoya, who statistically has performed the best of the Isles goaltenders, has not started a game since October 20th.  Time for Cappy to get El Cubano back between the pipes to start the game.  Montoya’s play in relief of Nabokov earned it.

The Avalanche are led by a coaching tandem of former team members, including head coach Joe Sacco and assistants Sylvain Lefebvre and Adam Deadmarsh.  Sacco has had some success at the NHL level so far, but is looking to guide this young Avalanche team back into the upper echelon of the Western Conference where they belonged for so many years.  Though they are relying heavily on young players such as Paul Stastny and Erik Johnson to become leaders of the team, it is clear that the team respects the coaching staff.  A home game against a struggling Islanders team is the type of game Sacco and company need to win to regain a sense of confidence on home ice and in the Western Conference playoff picture.

Edge:  Avalanche

Overall Edge: Avalanche

My Prediction:  The Avalanche are desperate for a home win, and the Islanders have not played well on the road yet this season.  Avs coach Joe Sacco will not let his team start slowly in this game, and the Avalanche will pour on the pressure early against whichever goalie Jack Capuano starts for the Islanders.  Despite another tough effort, the Islanders fail to pull this game out, losing by a score of 5-3.  Small consolation will be an impressive effort from Kyle Okposo, who gets himself into the goal column in this game. 

 

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