Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The shame of it all


I'm going to talk about Trevor Gillies again! Wait, don't go away! Only in the briefest way. Stick around, please.

See, here's the thing. The Islanders have been in the news lately pretty much for just two reasons: the Nassau Brawl (that kind of rhymes if you really try hard enough) and Gillies elbowing Cal Clutterbuck almost immediately upon his return.

What's unfortunate about that is these news stories cover up what else is going on on Long Island: New York is showing signs of hockey life.

I know, I've delved into the realm of fantasy. But it's true.

The Islanders haven't gone on any extended run like the Devils have. The playoffs are a much longer shot than for New Jersey, though New York trails the Devils by just four points in the standings.

Still, New York has posted a 10-5-3 record in its last 18 games. Most of their losses in this stretch have come to the East's top teams: one to Pittsburgh, one to Boston, an overtime loss to Philadelphia, and two one-goal decisions against Washington (one going to overtime.) The Islanders also came as close as anyone to knocking off New Jersey, falling Sunday in a seven-round shootout.

So this "You can't lose to the Islanders and hope to make the playoffs" I saw from Minnesota fans isn't entirely full of merit. Sure, New York is still 14th in the East (that's next to last) but the Islanders have been pretty solid, and certainly quite competitive, of late.

And I don't think it's as simple as one of those standard "non-playoff team coming together at the end of the season" runs.

The Islanders, I'm afraid to say, have some nice talent. John Tavares is pulling a Steven Stamkos, i.e. emerging as a top player in the second half of his second season. He had 16 points in 14 February games and three so far in four March games. Matt Moulson is on the verge of another 30-goal season. So is Michael Grabner, who was the hottest player in the league for a while (10 goals in six games) before a recent slump cooled him off, but he has 26 goals. Moulson has 28.

I think the stat I saw on Sunday said Tavares and Grabner, entering Sunday, led the NHL in scoring since the all-star break. So there's that, too.

P.A. Pareanteau is having a nice little season as well, though it's possible he's merely riding the coattails of Tavares and Moulson. Blake Comeau is having a career year and appears likely to reach the 20-goal and 40-50 point plateau.

Two stories I'm enjoying in New York: One is the sneaky-goodness of young defenseman Andrew MacDonald, who has emerged during Mark Streit's absence to rank tied for 11th in the NHL with 137 blocked shots, a team-high 23:19 average ice time per game, and 25 points in 52 games. MacDonald has also shown a solid quality in running New York's power play (11 power play assists.)

The other is the resurrection of goaltender Al Montoya. Once a top prospect, Montoya bounced around a couple different organizations. In 10 games with the Islanders, Montoya has won half of them, earned a point in two others, and has recorded a 1.93 GAA with an impressive .931 save percentage.

This isn't exactly the 1980s Islanders of old but I'd wager it's a brighter point for the Islanders than most of their recent seasons.

In all probability, the only sure thing we can say about these players is Tavares is no fluke. Moulson likely isn't either. Though he's already 27, assuming he nets two more goals, it'll be his second straight 30-goal season and he's shown a real chemistry with Tavares. Grabner's speed will make him a threat any time he's on the ice (Who else saw him break away against New Jersey on Sunday?) and appears to have made the leap this year.

The others are unknowns and possibly have reached their ceiling already. My biggest question is about MacDonald. What kind of year will he have when Mark Streit is in the lineup? MacDonald is easily New York's best defenseman right now; Streit unquestionably is when he's playing. So how will Streit's presence affect MacDonald's production? I'm going out on a limb here, but it'll either help him, hurt him or have no effect. (How's that for in-depth analysis?)

Of course, New York's goaltending remains a question mark. Six different players have seen time in goal for the Islanders this season. Montoya and Kevin Poulin have been the best. But Rick DiPietro, theoretically at least, remains in the picture.

Still, the Islanders have some nice things going for them. They're not going to make a late surge towards the playoffs like New Jersey but there are reasons to be excited for the future. Plus they'll be getting another top-five draft pick this summer.

Or maybe this really is just a meaningless end-of-season run of success that won't carry over.

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