January 31 – Day 104 – A real test

I hope you enjoyed your All-Star break, because we’re back on the hockey circuit and won’t stop until April 9.

I tried to make that sound as bad as possible, but I think all I did was make hockey fans more excited.

We get back to action with a bang, as all but two teams are fighting for two points tonight. As usual, the action starts at 7 p.m. when four games (Washington at the New York Islanders, Columbus at the New York Rangers, Nashville at Pittsburgh and Philadelphia at Carolina) drop the puck, trailed half an hour later by another quartet of contests (Buffalo at Montréal [RDS], New Jersey at Detroit, Boston at Tampa Bay [SN/SN1/TVAS] and Ottawa at Florida [RDS2]). Winnipeg at St. Louis gets underway at 8 p.m., followed 30 minutes later by Toronto at Dallas. 9 p.m. marks beginning of two matches (Minnesota at Edmonton and Los Angeles at Arizona), with Colorado at Anaheim (SN/SN1) waiting until 10 and tonight’s nightcap, Chicago at San Jose, dropping the puck at 10:30 p.m. All times eastern.

Short list:

  • Washington at New York: It’s rivalry night in Brooklyn.
  • New Jersey at Detroit: Kyle Quincey was drafted by the Wings and spent eight seasons with the club over two stints.

Sorry Quincey, but since Doug Weight has taken control of the Islanders, they’ve been playing as well as anybody. This rivalry cannot be missed tonight, as it will show a lot about New York‘s potential for the rest of the season.

Washington Capitals LogoNew York Islanders Logo

 

Yes, the Isles have gone 4-0-1 since Weight has taken over, but they have yet to face the likes of the 33-10-6 Capitals. Then again, there’s not many that can claim to be as good as Washington either, as they have a three-point lead over the second-best team in the league.

The reason for their success? Their defensive prowess. The Caps have allowed only 102 goals this season, the fewest in the league.

As it does with every defensive team, it all starts with the goaltender: 24-8-4 Braden Holtby. Last year’s Vezina winner has a season .93 save percentage and 1.96 GAA, the second-best effort in the league among the 45 goalies with at least 19 appearances.

But Washington doesn’t simply rely on one of the best netminders in the game – they also play impressive defense. Led by Karl Alzner‘s team-leading 97 shot blocks, the Capitals allow only 28.2 shots-per-game to reach Holtby’s crease, the seventh-best effort in the NHL.

As you’d expect from a defense of that caliber, opposing power plays don’t find very much successes against the Caps. Washington is the home of the fourth-best penalty kill in the league, stopping 85.1% of opposing man-advantages dead in their tracks. Once again, Alzner leads that effort. as his 27 shorthanded blocks both top the team and tie for second-most in the league.

After reading that, fans that follow the 21-17-9 Islanders closely are already a little bit concerned, because they know where, even if they are riding a two-game winning streak, their team has struggled this season: on the offensive end.

He’s no Mike Bossy, but the Islanders offense is, for the third-straight season, all about Captain John Tavares. Once again, he leads the club with 40 points and 19 goals, but the big issue this year is that there is no more than one other major offensive threat. Beyond Anders Lee and his second-most 17 tallies, there is not another scorer on the team with more than 10 goals. In comparison, the Capitals have five players that have lit the lamp 13 or more times.

This is no more apparent than when New York is on the power play, as they’ve only converted 14.6% of opponents’ penalties into goals – the fifth-worst rate in the league. It’s the same folks leading this effort, as Tavares’ 11 power play points are tops on the team, as are his and Lee’s five power play goals.

That all being said, it seems Weight, himself a successful center during his playing days, is working to resolve that. Since he’s taken command of the ship, his team has scored a combined 16 goals over five games (3.2 goals per game), well above their season average of 2.87. That includes their last two contests when they beat the likes of Sergei Bobrovsky and Carey Price with seven total goals.

One thing not entirely in Weight’s bailiwick is the penalty kill, which has also been a liability this season. New York is 10th-worst on the season when down a man, yielding a goal 19.9% of the time even though Calvin de Haan has done all he can to keep pucks off net with his team-leading 24 shorthanded blocks. Since Weight has taken over the Islanders, the penalty kill has performed well 81.8% of the time, which ties for 11th-best over that stretch.

Tonight is the rubber match between these clubs, as they both finished their last meeting with identical 2-2-0 records in the series. That game was on December 27, and the Isles used the energy of the filled-to-capacity Barclays Center to beat the visiting Capitals 4-3.

Some players to keep an eye on this evening include New York‘s Thomas Greiss (.928 save percentage [fifth-best in the NHL] for a 2.25 GAA [tied for eighth-best in the league]) and Dennis Seidenberg (+21 [tied for ninth-most in the NHL]) & Washington‘s Nicklas Backstrom (34 assists [tied for second-most in the league] among 47 points [tied for eighth-most in the NHL]), Holtby (six shutouts [most in the league] and a 1.96 GAA [tied for second-best in the NHL] and .93 save percentage [third-best in the league] for 24 wins [tied for fifth-most in the NHL]), Dmitry Orlov (+21 [tied for ninth-best in the league]), Brooks Orpik (+27 [tied for second-best in the NHL]) and Alex Ovechkin (23 goals [tied for fourth-most in the league]).

I know that the Islanders are rolling right now, but I expect Washington to be too good defensively to let New York break through. Obviously the goal is to win, but the Isles remaining competitive in this game will be a major indicator to see if they can overtake the Flyers for the eight seed before the season ends.

Hockey Birthday

  • Camille Henry (1933-1997) – This center played almost exclusively for the Rangers over his 14-season career, and they were happy to have him. He was a three-time All Star and won the 1954 Calder and 1958 Byng trophies.
  • Bob Turner (1934-2005) – Although this blueliner played only eight seasons, they were eight impressive ones. All but two of his campaigns were spent in Montréal, and he was awarded with just as many Stanley Cups as All-Star nominations: five.

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