Entering the homestretch of the, teams across the National Hockey League are working harder than ever, vying for every win, hoping their effort is enough to make a playoff run.
The New York Islanders have not yet surpassed the 50 point mark this season, but they’re right on the cusp. They’ve been playing exciting hockey these last few weeks and have now won their last four games, while posting 6-2-0 in their last eight.
Their next opponent is in the midst of a completely opposite run. The Boston Bruins begin a six-game road trip Thursday night when they face the Isles on Long Island, have now lost four of their last five games. But that isn’t any reason to disregard the B’s high-powered offense. With 69 points in the standings, the Bruins still rank third in the Eastern Conference and in the midst of the playoff race.
The nuts and bolts of this match up? Both teams will be fighting for their two points.
“We definitely have to work hard,” Islanders forward Jesse Joensuu
said. “They’re a big team so we have to move our legs and just play smart. I think right now, our team is on a good pace and everyone likes to play with each other. I think we can beat any team.”
|Jesse Joensuu #58 of the New York Islanders shoots the puck against the Buffalo Sabres at HSBC Arena on February 13, 2011 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images) |
Producing points may be the most challenging part of Thursday night’s matchup. The Islanders have surely been creating their share of offense, scoring 36 goals in their last 8 games (with one being a shutout), but facing a goaltender like Tim Thomas is going to be a good test.
While the Bruins veteran goaltender minds the net with his league-leading 2.02 goals against average, .938 save percentage and 7 shutouts, Thomas' impeccable statistics shouldn't scare the Islanders away, but inspire them to continue scoring.
“We definitely have to get in there in front of him so he can’t see the puck because he’s a tough goalie to beat if he sees the puck,” Islanders center Frans Nielsen
said. “We have to make it tough for him, get in his way and just keep going.”
Finding the gritty areas around the paint will be a big part of the game.
“Cappy (Islanders interim head coach Jack Capuano) has been trying to tell us to go to the net and maybe sometimes just shoot for the goalies pads instead of trying to make a tough pass and go for those rebounds,” Nielsen said. “We’ve been rewarded with that recently.”
That type of play has been a learned behavior. While Capuano’s been the teacher, one Bruins player and veteran forward has been one subject of study.
“I remember playing in Bridgeport, Cappy (Capuano) to show us clips of (Mark Recchi) sometimes when he came down the wing and shot those pucks off the pads (of the goaltender). I think that’s when he was in Pittsburgh. That’s definitely something Cappy likes. If you don’t have anything, just put it in there and have guys go to the net. It’s been working," Nielsen said.
That wasn’t always evident in Tuesday night’s game at Scotiabank place. Once again, the Islanders let up the first goal of the matchup and heading into the third period with the Ottawa Senators, the Islanders were playing from behind.
“It’s nice that we’re starting to get those wins even when we don’t play well,” Nielsen said. “The biggest thing was being down after 40 minutes we kept believing and got the win. We’ve done it a couple times now, coming from behind, so that’s nice.”
Trying to light a fire under the Islanders offensive lines, interim head coach Jack Capuano changed it up on Tuesday night and moved around some players.
“We moved the lines all around,” Capuano said. “The first period, we had no jump whatsoever. Some guys didn’t look very good. We just tried to spark the team. It’s a gut feeling. As a coach, when you do that, you try to get things going. By far, that first period, Joensuu, (Josh) Bailey and (Michael) Grabner were our best line. They had the most chances in that first period.”
Grabner has quickly sped to the top of the rookie scoring leaders - as he has scored 15 goals in 14 games this past month, quickly becoming the NHL's leading scorer during that span. Grabner just needs one more goal to become the Islanders franchise's second-highest rookie scoring leader (only behind Mike Bossy, who scored 53 goals in 1977-78).
“He’s a guy that his linemates know what his strengths are,” Capuano said about Grabner. “They put pucks to areas and he skates onto it to utilize his speed.”
The Isles rookie isn't the only player who's been hot. Josh Bailey
has earned points in his last three games and also broke his 22-game scoreless streak as he netted his first goal of 2011 on Tuesday night.
But the 4-3 shootout win is definitely a tribute to the Islanders defensive play.
|Andrew MacDonald #47 of the New York Islanders skates against the Buffalo Sabres at HSBC Arena on February 13, 2011 in Buffalo, New York. (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images) |
“Our defensemen played real well,” Capuano said. “I thought our forwards had an off night. We didn’t have our legs under us. But our defense moved the puck out of our own end pretty quickly, moved the puck North. They had good gap. I thought they did a great job boxing out. They were going to the paint pretty hard last night.”
One player who deserves a ton of credit is defenseman Andrew MacDonald
. Despite leaving in the first period after a center-ice collision with Chris Kelly and his stick, MacDonald returned to the lineup wearing a full-face shield.
Capuano called the defenseman “a warrior” for having the determination to come back for the second and third period after taking a high stick to the face. But as he faced the other team’s top lines, he still posted more than 20 minutes of ice time (even while missing the majority of the first period).
“What AMac (MacDonald) did yesterday, the doctors or somebody wasn’t sure if he could play, but he came back and battled,” Joensuu said. “That makes everybody work harder too.”
The Islanders will most-likely depend on rookie goaltender Nathan Lawson, who just recorded his first NHL win on Tuesday night at Scotiabank Place, to mind the net.Notes:
After playing the Islanders Tuesday night, Chris Kelly was traded from the Senators to the Bruins and will most-likely appear in Thursday night’s game at Nassau Coliseum.**
After both teams dove head first into the battle of fisticuffs last week, neither team is likely to drop the gloves on Thursday night. The Bruins were involved in what hockey media called "old-time hockey" fights with their arch-rival Montreal Canadiens last Wednesday.
Two days later, the Islanders young squad had “old-time hockey” night of their own with the Pittsburgh Penguins and after 346 penalty minutes were doled out, the NHL took a stand as they handed out harsh punishments - including a $100,000 fine to the Isles for not controlling their players.