After their comeback win over the Flyers last night, the Blue Jackets kick off a five-game road trip on Saturday night on Long Island against the Metropolitan Division’s top team, the Islanders. The Islanders have consistently been one of the best teams in hockey since the drop of the puck on opening night. They’ve been so strong that some consider their recent stretch of games, including a three-game winning streak, to be one of their few minor hiccups on the season.
The Islanders continue to win, going 6-4-0 in their last 10 games, but the ease with which they took games earlier in the season has not quite been there in February. The Islanders squeaked out 3-2 victories over struggling teams the past week, topping the Maple Leafs, Oilers, and Sabres in games that were all a little too close for comfort. Still, the Islanders are finding ways to win, particularly impressive considering the team has been without first-line winger Kyle Okposo for the last nine games.
Okposo (upper-body injury) is a tough player to replace, and even though he’s been sidelined since Jan. 19, he remains second on the team in scoring (14-30-44 in 46 games). Line mate and All-Star John Tavares obviously does a good deal of the lifting, his 24 goals and 51 points both team highs. Beyond Tavares it’s a committee job, with no other player topping 20 goals and only three other players in the lineup for Saturday into double-figures.
A deep and speedy forward attack was already expected from the Islanders at the start, but the difference between last year’s non-playoff team and this year’s division leader, besides a healthy Tavares, is the blue line and back. The additions of Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy, made in savvy trades right before the start of the season, have been tremendous for the Islanders defensive stability and power play, while Jaroslav Halak has been the No. 1 goaltender the franchise has lacked consistently since arguably the days of Chris Osgood.
The Islanders are 19-6-0 at home in their final season at Nassau Coliseum. If there’s any blemish on this Islanders team, it is certainly the penalty kill, last in the league at 72.8 percent. It’s an area the Blue Jackets can exploit if they can rectify their own power play problems.
The Islanders came to Columbus on Jan. 10 and showed what all the hype is about, beating the Blue Jackets 5-2. It was the Jackets’ second straight game losing by a 5-2 count, losing to the Maple Leafs in Toronto the night before. The Islanders wasted no time jumping all over the Blue Jackets in this one.
Nikolay Kulemin scored just 31 seconds into the game with a deflection of a Nick Leddy shot. Jack Johnson tied the game on the power play four minutes later, but that was as close as they would come. Things came unglued in the second period when Matt Martin, Anders Lee, and Brian Strait scored within eight minutes thanks in part to sloppy defense from the Jackets. Nick Foligno and Okposo traded goals in the second period, and the Islanders out-shot Columbus 40-18.
The Calder Trophy conversation has mostly revolved around Predators forward Filip Forsberg and Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad, but maybe it’s time we give Anders Lee a little bit of praise. Lee is having a tremendous rookie campaign for the Islanders with 18 goals on the season, including three in the last three games. Lee has been one of the key players making up for Okposo’s lost production, but his success isn’t a recent phenomenon. The Notre Dame product, who had two short call-up stints with the Islanders over the last two seasons, has scored 28 goals over the first 73 games of his NHL career. The 24 year-old is big, has a nose for the net, and is making his living cashing in rebounds around the net.
Cam Atkinson has certainly found his scoring touch once again. After a lengthy dry spell, the Jackets’ shifty winger has four goals and seven points in his last eight games. Not only is Atkinson finding the net, but he’s doing it at the right times; he has two game-winners over the eight game stretch, and his third period tally opened the scoring in Ottawa last Saturday. More important was his goal late in the third against the Flyers on Friday that pulled the Jackets even at 3-3 and sent the game to overtime. “He looked faster tonight," Richards said Friday. "When he plays with speed, has agility and can stop and start, he can create plays." The Blue Jackets hope there's even more offense to come from Atkinson.
One could make a solid argument that the Islanders have had the best fourth line in the game this season. Between Matt Martin and Casey Cizikas, the Islanders have a crashing physical unit that can force turnovers and knows what to do with them. With Cal Clutterbuck moving up the depth chart, Colin McDonald was recalled from AHL Bridgeport three games ago and has had an instant impact. In the last three games, those players have combined for four goals and nine points. The Blue Jackets have not gotten such steady production from their fourth line with Mark Letestu, Corey Tropp, and Jared Boll. But that was one of their better lines on Friday night, with all three players factoring in on Jared Boll’s first goal of the season. The Jackets will need that group at their best; tere are no shifts off against the Islanders, and Richards needs the Islanders defense feeling just as much heat as his own.