Saturday, January 9, 2010

Halfway Mark Review - Preview

Halfway Mark

Heading into this season, even the most diehard of Islander fans were well aware that this team was an unlikely playoff contender, much less a Stanley Cup contender.

Nonetheless, simply the additions of John Tavares and no less than two bonafide NHL goaltenders in Roloson and Biron could attest to this team likely becoming a more difficult team to beat, especially considering the number of U26 players on this team looking to up the ante to their games in a bid to establish themselves as effective and regular NHLers.

Where is the team after 41 games? 13th in the conference. Still, this placement in the standings doesn't tell the whole story. For the most part, the Islanders have been in the bulk of their games played and have successfully dealt with controversy, often coming back in order to gain a point, if not two. Injuries have occured, the gravest being the loss of top 4 Dman Radek Martinek for the season with an ACL tear after just 16 games. In addition, the team has been able to go 5-1-1 after having lost 4 in a row heading into the halfway mark of the season. It's been a rollercoaster ride of sorts, but the team is in the running and is staying within close reach of a playoff spot. What's more is that many teams have had a problem with the Islanders' aggressive style of play, which is taxing, but which causes opponents to cough up the puck more than any would like to.

1) Dwayne Roloson - Needing a few games to get into the swing of things, Roloson has been solid to spectacular on most nights this season. He's been the number one reason for no less than 5 wins this season and slowly but surely progressed into an absolute rock. Attesting to his importance is how much better this team plays as a whole when he's in goal.
2) Matt Moulson - Who'd have thunk it? The best of our supposed AHL signings this summer, Matt Moulson has become the type of underdog hero that this franchise hasn't seen since Jason Blake. He goes where it hurts and constantly does what he can within his limits. Although 26, this is his first real gig in the NHL and he's been a key reason this team is in the playoff race, currently tied in the team lead in goals. Can he keep up the rags to riches story?
3) John Tavares - After the rough introduction Steven Stamkos had last season, many fans felt Tavares' rookie year couldn't be all that much better. In addition, he's had to deal with expectations that few players have ever faced. Despite having recently hit a wall, Tavares is tied with the team lead in goals and has already become this franchise's best offensive weapon within 5 yards of the goal. Despite a myriad of rookie mistakes and the realizations a young player experiences when entering this league, we can see the kid learning and improving. He's simply a young man with incredible instincts that'll are really going to be looking good by the time he's of legal drinking age.
4) Kyle Okposo - Finally getting back to the hoped for goalscoring pace, Okposo's sheer strength, work ethic and saavy have deemed him the unofficial leader of this team. There's good reason that he's leading this team in assists as well. He's got a good eye and he brings the puck to the net as much or more than anyone else on this team. It's sometimes amazing what he's able to do with the puck and how strong he can be along the boards. A star in the making.
5) Ken Sutton - It's been a while since he's been this healthy, but he gives this team a physical presence they haven't had in ages. His hip-checks are a thing of beauty and he's been surprisingly solid with the puck. In addition, this team looked lost when Sutton was out of the line-up. He is an absolute cog on this team at the moment.

1) Inability to clear the zone - This team's repeated and continued inability to get the puck out of their own zone, even in situations where a clear should come with 100% simplicity and surety, has led to a number of goals against and several unnecessary losses, none worse than the 3-2 loss in Minnesota. The problem is simply incredible and should be out of every pro's game no later than when he's a bantam and yet this team regularly fails to clear the puck in situations where there should be nothing standing in the way of doing so. It's downright scary and sickening how inefficient this team is in this department, especially the forwards when they have the puck within 5 feet of the blueline.
2) Inability to hold a lead - Minus number 1is a key reason for minus number 2, but this team has entered a number of third periods with a 2 plus goal lead and have wound up giving up that lead. Youthful or not, the team and indirectly the coaching staff, has had a terrrible time of turning such leads into two points. No team at the pro level can be expected to win or even make the playoffs if this problem isn't nipped in the bud over ASAP. It has a lasting psychological effect on a team and this club has to get to the point where that's a sure thing victory every time.
3) Overwhelmed blueline - Ken Sutton has improved incredibly, and thankfully both Jack Hillen and Andy MacDonald have slowly but surely shown that they can bet positive influences on the blueline, but not a player on this blueline has been above-average. Whether it's an overload of responsibility or not, Mark Streit just hasn't been the same player he was last season. Witt, Gervais and Meyer have spent more time being weak links than positive posts in the first half of this season, and it shows in the standings.
4) Brendon Witt - He's a warrior and he's done a few very good things this season, but his general lack of skill combined with the fact that this game is simply too fast for him nowadays has turned our one time leader into the team's weakest link, at least statistically. The drop in his play the past two seasons has become so grave, that he may be out of an NHL job before next season begins.
5) Martin Biron - He's not necessarily been terrible, but he hasn't shown the ability to just make those few extra saves needed for a win. In his defense, this team has scored at a ridiculously low clip in games he's started, but no matter what the reason is, his record is currently abysmal. He's not making any argument for more ice time nor is he helping Snow find another home for him. His game is missing something and Gordon has been forced to turn to him less and less as the season has progressed.

What Lies in Store:
Having started the second half of the season very successfully, primarily on the strength of Roloson's great play and the offensive strength of Okposo, Hunter, Nielsen and the ever-improving Bailey and Schremp, this team is showing the hockey world that is fully intent on fighting for a playoff spot. We're watching the kids improve step-by-step and they manage to dig out a lot of points that they surely wouldn't have gotten last season.

Providing us fans with eternal hope, it's hard to predict what's gonna happen in the second half. Many keep waiting for this team to finally fall on its face, but it simply will not go away. Anytime a few players start slumping, it almost seems as if others pick up the pace. It's fun, it's exciting, it's downright unexpected - and we should all enjoy it for as long as it lasts. Dipietro is coming back, the team will have a lot of rested players after the Olympics, the Islanders had the most prospects of any team at the recent WJC tournament (including gold-medalist Donovan) and kids like Okposo, Comeau, Schremp, Hillen and Bailey continue to get better. Thus, there's a lot of positive things to look forward to over the second half of the season.

I'm gonna go out on a limb and say that Snow pawns off Park, Biron and Sim at the trade deadline and this team will still be in the playoff race in the last week of the season.

Stat Pace after 41 Games

Name GP W - L - T SO
Dwayne Roloson 52 28-14-10 0
Martin Biron 30 4-22-4 2

Name GP G - A - PT PM
John Tavares 82 32-24-56 20
Kyle Okposo 80 12-42-54 32
Matt Moulson 82 30-22-52 32
Mark Streit 82 8-32-40 60
Trent Hunter 52 14-18-32 12
Frans Nielsen 70 12-20-32 4
Josh Bailey 80 16-10-26 12
Richard Park 82 4-18-22 28
Jeff Tambellini 46 12-10-22 8
Sean Bergenheim 60 8-14-22 28
Blake Comeau 50 8-14-22 44
Jack Hillen 74 2-18-20 56
Andy Sutton 70 6-10-16 76
Jon Sim 78 8-6-14 56
Bruno Gervais 70 0-14-14 30
Rob Schremp 38 2-10-12 16
Nate Thompson 72 2-10-12 70
Doug Weight 22 0-12-12 40
Freddy Meyer 54 0-12-12 40
Brendan Witt 76 4-4-8 90
Tim Jackman 66 4-2-6 140
Jesse Joensuu 14 2-0-2 4
Andy MacDonald 34 2-0-2 16