Isles Face Sabres: It's Not Miller Time

Preview:  With 5.4 seconds left in the third period of Saturday’s contest against the Devils, Islanders fans rejoiced seeing Frans Neilsen win a defensive zone faceoff with a 1 goal lead.

With 2.1 seconds left, they gasped with horror as the puck somehow squeaked by Al Montoya with Islander-killer Zach Parise on the doorstep.

For about 2 minutes, the Islanders and their fans wondered “how the hell did we let this happen again?  What do we have to do to close a game out around here?”

Then, when all hope was lost, an act of mercy prevailed.  From the heavens on high (also known as the NHL offices in Toronto), the referees decreed the message: “NO GOAL”

The Islanders had won their first road game of the season.

Heading into Buffalo on Tuesday night, the Islanders hope to repeat that result (hopefully without inducing cardiac incidents all across their fan base).  Without franchise netminder Ryan Miller, who is still sidelined due to post-concussion syndrome, the Sabres are a team the Islanders need to make a statement against.

Monday morning saw two coaching changes in the NHL, as Washington’s Bruce Boudreau and Carolina’s Paul Maurice were replaced by a pair of men who Islanders fans may still hold grudges against.  Dale Hunter, of the Pierre Turgeon career-altering elbow, takes over for the Ovechkins.  Kirk Muller, of the “I’m too good for the Islanders” variety, takes over for Maurice in Carolina. 

Despite many pundits claiming that Jack Capuano’s job is safe no matter what, the Islanders would do well to do right by their coach and earn him a few victories back to make up for their poor start this season.  Capuano does not deserve to be on the theoretical hot seat, and it is up to the players to end that speculation.  They can start with a win in Buffalo.

Forwards:  Blake Comeau is gone; and despite his 24 goal campaign last season, he was never intended to be a top-6 forward when this rebuild was complete.  Seeing him waived means that there is more competition for ice time among better players overall – regardless of his pointless start to the season.  This should be seen as a positive for Islanders fans. 

The Islanders announced that veteran forward Jay Pandolfo has a broken foot and will likely be sidelined for 4-6 weeks.  Pandolfo had elevated his level of play over the last several games, and his contributions on the penalty kill may be missed more than one might initially imagine.  This injury does create a roster spot for what many would expect to be the return of Nino Neiderreiter to the lineup, while keeping Michael Haley on the big squad as well after Comeau’s departure.

Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey have also elevated their levels of play recently, and Michael Grabner looks to be back to his speed demon ways (though he needs to find a way to finish some of his breakaway opportunities).  The somewhat surprising stat for the Islanders’ forward unit is that John Tavares has gone without a goal for over 3 weeks – which not-so-coincidentally has been during the team’s recent slide.  Secondary scoring has been picking up and is key to the team’s success, but the Islanders will live and die by whether Tavares can find a way back on to the score sheet.

Buffalo boasts a lot of quality depth throughout their forward unit.  They see most of their scoring come from the trio of Thomas Vanek, Derek Roy, and Jason Pominville, while still sporting a supporting cast including Drew Stafford, Nathan Gerbe, and Brad Boyes.  Perhaps their most impressive forward this season so far has been rookie Luke Adam, who has taken the league by storm and is among the leaders for rookies in scoring with 16 points already. 

Edge:  Sabres – too much quality depth.  The Islanders need Tavares to find a way to create offense despite being marked by the opponent’s shut down line.

Defense:  The Islanders just recently saw their first even strength goal from a defenseman, when Mark Streit poked a puck past Montreal’s Peter Budaj.  In the two weeks since that goal, it remains the only one of the season.  Simply put, the Islanders have been shut out 3 times since that game.  They need their defensive corps to start taking some pride in contributing offensively.  The first passes out of the defensive zone have been suspect in the games where the Islanders have found themselves shut out, and were not able to generate any sustained offense because of it. 

Mark Streit has 11 points.  No other defenseman has more than 3.  Andy MacDonald and Travis Hamonic play the tough minutes against the opposing team’s top line night in and night out, but they showed glimpses last season of being able to chip in on the offensive side of the ice as well.  Steve Staios and Milan Jurcina need to start to get their heavy shots on goal to create more opportunities for deflections and rebounds as well. 

The Islanders have 1 defenseman with more than 3 points.  The Sabres have 1 regular defenseman with less than 3 points.  Christian “Kirk Muller Tribute” Ehrhoff leads their unit with 13 points, followed by Jordan Leopold (9), Marc-Andre Gragnani (8), Tyler Myers (6), and Andrej Sekera (5).  The defense has helped the Sabres hold on to a 3-3-1 record since Miller’s injury.  They will need to continue their strong play to keep Buffalo in the thick of the playoff hunt until the former Michigan State standout can return to the net.

Edge:  Sabres

Goaltending:  Al Montoya appears to have earned the right to call himself the Islanders number one goaltender.  His impressive numbers to this point in the season are significantly better than what his counterparts Rick DiPietro and the now-injured Evgeni Nabokov have been able to put together so far this year.  And while the numbers suggest Montoya by a landslide, DiPietro has quietly kept his team in almost every game that he has started this season.  One would be foolish to assume that they know who will play in net for the Islanders until coach Capuano announces it before the game.  Until the team announces that Montoya is the man, assume that this will still be a split-time scenario.

With Miller’s injury, the Sabres’ netminding responsibilities fall to Jhonas Enroth.  Enroth started the season off 5-0 with stellar save percentage and GAA numbers, but has regressed slightly since taking over the number one job.  He still sports a .925 SV% and a 2.29 GAA, so he is no slouch to be sure, but he has not been the brick wall he appeared to be in his first few starts this season.

Edge:  Islanders – despite my warning not to assume anything about the Islanders’ goaltending situation, I will color myself foolish and assume that Montoya gets the start in Buffalo.

Prediction:  As is the case most times they will take the ice this season, the Islanders appear to be the underdogs in this contest on paper.  However, in recent meetings, the Islanders have been able to play pretty well against their fellow New York team.  With Ryan Miller out, the Sabres play has been inconsistent to say the least.  Two games ago they were blown out by Columbus 5-1.  In their last game, they blew out the Capitals 5-1 (perhaps sealing Boudreau’s fate in doing so). 

The Islanders came together as a team on Saturday and willed themselves to win a hockey game they desperately needed to stop their road woes and losing skid.  On Tuesday in Buffalo, the team needs to come together once again and take a step forward to get this season to get back on track.  Michael Grabner, who had a hat trick last season against the Sabres, finds the back of the net, and John Tavares returns to the score sheet.  The defense plays bend-but-don’t-break (though not as close as Saturday), and the Islanders sneak out of Buffalo with a 3-2 win.