For just the second time in the 25-day old season, the Islanders have two consecutive practice days to prepare for a game.
Coming off a 6-4 loss to Carolina on Monday at Nassau Coliseum, the Islanders don’t play again until Thursday when they take on the Rangers at Madison Square Garden. To take advantage of the two-day break, Head Coach Jack Capuano put the players through a number of full-contact drills during Tuesday’s practice.
“This spot in the schedule gives us time to battle a little more than normal,” Capuano said. “We had a good skate today. I can’t fault their work ethic. Anybody that’s seen us play knows we’re limiting the opposition’s chances per game, but we’re just not finding a way to get it done right now. The guys are working hard. We’ve got to stay positive. We’re going through a funk right now, facing some adversity. We’ve just got to get back on track.”
Forward Josh Bailey believes the two days between games will benefit a team trying to shake off some bad momentum.
“Hopefully this will help a lot,” Bailey said. “I think you get a little bit of a mental break too. When you’re playing every other day, it seems like every day is a game day. You’re always preparing for a game, whether it’s the day of or the next day. So the mental break will be good for us as well.”
The Islanders power play struck for four goals on five opportunities against the Hurricanes Monday. By comparison, the penalty kill has allowed just four goals on 38 attempts all season, and has ranked in the top-5 league-wide throughout. Defenseman Travis Hamonic says the squad has to draw from what has worked on special teams and translate that into even strength play.
“We’ve been doing really well so far on the penalty kill,” Hamonic said. “We have to string a game together where both special teams and the five-on-five are working. It’s not very often you’re going to score four power play goals on five attempts. It’s frustrating. There’s room for improvement from everyone and the recent results haven’t been for a lack of trying.”
The Islanders have a minus-11 goal differential at even strength this season. Capuano says it’s the small details that need to change in order for the team to translate the special teams success into 5-on-5 success.
“We need a better sense of urgency and sense of defending,” Capuano said. “We’ve been in the right spots. But you have to defend properly. We lost d-side positioning a couple times, and at the same time, we defended with our sticks not on the ice. When you do that, they get opportunities. The days of cross-checking to move guys out are over. You have to defend with your stick when the puck is exposed, and we have to do a better job of that 5-on-5.”
In an attempt to spark the offense, Capuano moved Bailey, who had been skating with Matt Martin and Casey Cizikas in his first two games back from injury, to a line with Frans Nielsen and Kyle Okposo. Grabner, who’d previously occupied that spot, skated with Keith Aucoin and Colin McDonald while David Ullstrom joined Cizikas and Martin.
“Five-on-five, we need to score some more goals, so I think Cappy wanted to switch some things up,” Bailey said. “Obviously, last year Frans, Okie and myself had some success together. We want to carry that over into this year. Whether we just need lucky bounces or whatever the case may be, I think we’ve just got to keep pushing pucks to the net to get out of this slump.”
Heading into Thursday’s matchup against the Rangers, Hamonic knows that the team can’t dwell on its recent struggles.
“With the schedule being this condensed, you have to let it go,” Hamonic said. “You’re not going to play your best and you’re not going to have the best team effort every night even though you wish you could. You have to learn to evaluate it, take it for what it’s worth and move on. We have an exciting rivalry game coming up and we know we have to have a better effort going into their building.”
Including a matchup against New Jersey on Saturday and Philadelphia on Monday, the Islanders next three games will be against Atlantic Division opponents, whom they are chasing in the standings. With just three points separating the Islanders from eighth place in the Eastern Conference, the race for the playoffs is going to remain tight all season, making the upcoming divisional tilts crucial.