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Islanders get boost on blue line

by Dyan LeBourdais / New York Islanders
The Islanders could use a boost to their defensive core and special teams’ lineup during their impending three-game road trip to Minnesota, Winnipeg and back to New York City. Following Friday morning’s skate at Iceworks, it looks like the Isles are about to get what they need.

Just before they boarded the plane to Kyle Okposo’s home state, Islanders Head Coach Jack Capuano announced that Mark Eaton (knee) and Andrew MacDonald (right leg) would both be traveling with the team and would be game-time decisions Saturday night against the Wild.

“Those are both guys that block a lot of shots and log a lot of minutes on our penalty kill,” Capuano said. “There’s no question it would help in that area for sure. Special teams have been a big issue for our team over the last 10 days and AMac (MacDonald) can play the power play as well. Just their leadership and their experience back on the blue line will help.”

Zach Parise & Andrew MacDonald play for position in front of the net during the 3rd period at Nassau Coliseum on November 25, 2011. (Photo by Christopher Pasatieri/Getty Images)
In the Isles first five games of their six-game point streak (4-0-2 record), they went 6-for-18 on the power play with a 33.33 percent success rate. In the last four games they’ve faltered, going a mere 1-for-18 of the man advantage. Conversely, the Isles have allowed a power-play goal in each of their last four games, killing off only 75 percent of their penalties.

“We’ve had opportunities on our power play the last week and a half and we didn’t get it done,” Capuano said. “Giving up key times when they get their power play, they take advantage of it and it’s in the back of our net. That’s what’s hurt our team these last 10 days, our special teams, and that’s one area that we have to make sure we are better at.”

Capuano has repeatedly acknowledged a team’s success on special teams as a major game changer.

“Teams that are clicking on their special teams, that’s what it’s about in the new NHL,” Capuano said. “Thirty percent, 40 percent of these games are special teams now. That’s six or seven penalties a game. We have to make sure we are sharp. We just told the guys, you are not going to score on every power play, we can’t get frustrated... But I sense the frustration setting in on the power play and that can’t happen.”

Getting MacDonald and Eaton back in the lineup will surely help alleviate some of the pressure. Though Eaton doesn’t play a lot of power-play minutes, his return to the penalty kill will open space for another blue liner to step up on the power play. MacDonald, who averages 1:50 of power-play time per game, possesses a strong shot from the point.

The pair of lefties have been some of the Islanders most stable defensemen this season, with MacDonald playing a team-high 2:36 on the penalty kill per game; Eaton followed with a close 2:18 per game.

“Playing special teams, it’s a privilege to be out there,” MacDonald said. “Myself and Mark (Eaton) are fortunate to be put in situations out on those special teams. We try to take pride in working hard and basically learning the ropes of how to play in those situations. Both of us are pretty anxious to get out there and help the team out however we can.”

Jordan Staal carries the puck as Mark Eaton defends during their NHL game at Consol Energy Center on November 21, 2011. (Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)
Eaton’s return to the ice came after missing nearly a month of practices and games; he sustained a knee injury Nov. 21 in Pittsburgh. MacDonald’s return comes after he blocked a slap shot in Buffalo on Nov. 29 and missed two-and-a-half weeks with a deep bone bruise to his right leg.

MacDonald, who once led the team in blocked shots with 60, is still second on the team despite missing seven games. He said his injury will not prevent him from going out and playing his game; Eaton’s game won’t be affected either.

“My game doesn’t change much at all,” Eaton said. “That’s one of my fortes, penalty killing. Getting back in there, I’ve been chomping at the bit. I’ll do what’s asked of me and contribute any way I can if I get back in.”

Sitting out of the games, Eaton has had time to watch from over head and gain a better overall view of the team’s play. He’s noticed how they’ve changed.

“We’ve played some pretty good hockey,” Eaton said. “We went on a pretty good stretch there. Basically the last three games were not the result that we want, but I think just watching the last three weeks, our desperation and the sense of urgency is there more than it was.”

He continued, “We realize that we have to start games from the first second and play all the way through for 60-65 minutes depending on the outcome. That’s the biggest thing I’ve seen is our sense of urgency and desperation in our game.”

Notes: Prior to the road trip, the Islanders announced they returned defenseman Calvin de Haan and goaltender Kevin Poulin to the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. Leaving the Isles with five defensemen, not including MacDonald or Eaton, is a surefire sign at least one – if not both – players will be activated off injured reserve and return to the lineup.

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