Time for the Islanders to Panic?

Man, it only took a couple of days to wipe out so many of the good feelings built up through the first eight weeks of the season.  The question is now being asked by many: is it time for the Islanders to push the panic button?

It was only a few short days ago Islander fans and media alike were waxing poetic about the “special” season taking place over in Uniondale.  The team was going to close out its time at the Nassau Coliseum with one final hoorah for the fans. Everyone was singing kumbaya and we were all one big happy family.

And that all changed once the second period started against the Blues Saturday afternoon.

Okay, this is all probably a little exaggerated.  The Islanders were on a 13-2-0 streak prior to Saturday’s contest against the Blues.  Even the most optimistic fan would acknowledge that stretch of play was not sustainable.  However it is not just back-to-back losses that have many in Islanders-land chewing their fingernails because, let’s face it, every team is going to go on a losing streak here and there throughout the season.  But how they lost those two games?  Yes, while maybe it’s not time to declare DEFCON-5, but an eyebrow or two should certainly be raised.

You know the story: three goal lead in the first period and end up with no points in the standings. Zip.  Zero.  Zilch.  A complete meltdown in consecutive games that has given the fans ‘Nam like flashbacks to previous seasons where blowing multiple goal leads was the norm, not the exception. Quite frankly if you didn’t see the names on the back of their jerseys, you wouldn’t have been able to tell if it was a game from last season or three seasons ago. 

The season isn’t over with these losses and there is plenty of time for the Islanders to get back on track.  A good team will use these losses as a teaching moment to improve themselves later in the year.  And there are plenty of things still needing to be worked on that are concerns:

-          Faceoffs: this was glaring several times against Minnesota as they were able to score off faceoffs throughout the game, and the 44-20 faceoff edge the Wild help actually felt worse while watching the game.  However this has been an issue all season.  The Islanders are 26th in the league, winning only 47.3% of its faceoffs.  No regular centerman is at 50% on the season.  It’s been comically bad on the penalty kill as the team has won on 37.5% of the draws, no doubt a key component to the team’s league-worst power play (Frans Nielsen has won less than 34% of his draws short-handed).  Whether it’s through practice or trading for a faceoff specialist, the team’s deficiency in this area needs to be corrected.

-          Penalty Kill: while winning a faceoff will go a long way towards a successful penalty kill, it also isn’t the only way.  The Islanders are killing off penalties at a 72.9% clip so far and appear to be discombobulated in their own end chasing the play.  The penalty kill is run by assistant coach Greg Cronin whose resume includes leading the penalty kill in Toronto last season to the 28th best rank.  Sure, it’s better than last, but is it really the best they could find?  The penalty kill has had some good stretches, but far too often allows high-quality chances easily from the defensemen which puts incredible pressure on the other players to clear pucks and win battles in front of the net. 

-          Injuries: the defensive corp has taken the biggest toll as there are a couple of key ones missing in Travis Hamonic and Johnny Boychuk.  Both are on injured reserve and there is no timetable for their returns.  The pair is the Islanders most physical defensemen, but also are more than capable of quickly getting the puck out of danger in the defensive zone and chipping in on offense.  Yes, it’s not anyone’s fault these guys are injured, but their injuries are forcing big minutes to others who just aren’t ready for the responsibility.  

-          Brian Strait/Griffin Reinhart: speaking of players not ready for significant minutes, we present you a stop-gap middling defenseman and a rookie defenseman with the speed and grace of a tractor trailer.  There’s no point in jumping over Strait: anyone who follows the team knows he’s been bad, particularly these past few games.  There’s no doubt he’s trying his best, but he’s not in the top-six for a reason, but the coaching staff continues to run him out there in favor of Matt Donovan (who isn’t great by any stretch, but at this point can’t be any worse than Strait)  At some point you have to really question what Jack Capuano sees in him.  As for Reinhart, one day he may develop into a solid defenseman, capable of big minutes.  That time is not now though.  He looks a step slow and has issues clearing the puck out of his own end.  No one should have expected him to be a shutdown defenseman immediately, but right now he is a liability on the back-end. 

-          Chad Johnson: he has a .868 save percentage.  That’s really all you need to know.  If Jaroslav Halak’s injury is serious, the Islanders are in trouble.  Simple as that.

-          The first line: really, it should just read “John Tavares and Kyle Okposo.”  Tavares has 10 points in his last 15 games (with only one multi-point game during that stretch) and Okposo hasn’t scored since November 5th.  Both have looked sluggish and are not contributing to the levels the team expects them to.  Maybe Tavares’ knee is still affecting him from the Olympics and maybe Okposo is just going through a cold spell.  Whatever it is, it needs to be corrected and it should start with the two being split up for Thursday night’s game.

Despite all of this, it’s not time to panic.  It looks like a lot of issues, but there isn’t anything on the above list that isn’t correctable.  Yes, the team defense will be weaker until Hamonic and Boychuk are healthy, but the team was able to win games without them, so it’s tough to use that excuse now.  The entire team, including the forwards, need to do a better job in their end of clearing pucks out quick and also do a better job in the offensive zone by sustaining pressure.  The Islanders need to use the “best defense is a good offense” strategy until they are fully healthy. 

While there are no such things as “must win” games in December, Thursday night against the Blues is a vital test for the Islanders to play better.  While a win would go a long way towards calming many fans’ fears of a possible slide, the team needs to play a solid game and compete for 60 minutes.  Most fans can live with the results if they know their team is going all-out during the game.  That wasn’t the case the past few nights and it proved that no lead is safe when you aren’t competing. 

It is a similar situation that they faced earlier in the season when they went out to San Jose to play the Sharks after a pair of embarrassing performances.  While they didn’t beat the Sharks that night, they played their best game in several weeks and were able to use it as a spring board into a fantastic November.  They have a similar opportunity Thursday nighy for that in a classic “fork in the road” game: do they put the sting of two bad losses behind them and go hard for 60 minutes and re-affirm their status as a legitimate contender in the East, or are they just happy to be 10 games over and will fall back on the crutch of injuries and wait to get better?

Hey, the team and we fans were bound to get smacked off our perch sooner or later.  The good times were flowing, the team was winning, and it was fun and proud to wear the Islander jersey around town.   This Islander team is a quality club and should be there come April.  However they need to get back to skating, hitting, moving the puck, and doing all the good things they were doing just a few weeks ago.  Perhaps they were just reading their press clippings a little too much.  Either way, going 19-9-0 through two months is no fluke and I expect them to clean up this mess here.

There’s no need to sound the alarm just yet.  But come talk to me in a week if things get worse…

Follow me on Twitter @mikepac23 for my Islander thoughts and make sure to follow @TCLIsles for Islander news and analysis.