Coming off of two gritty, well-played, but ultimately disappointing overtime losses in their last two games, the Islanders begin a five-game Western road trip Thursday night against the St. Louis Blues.
The gateway to the West leads the Islanders to California, where they’ll play the Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks, before wrapping up the trip in Phoenix against the Coyotes. All five teams rank in the NHL’s top 10, potentially making this the toughest trip of the season, a prospect not lost on head coach Jack Capuano.
“We know what teams we are playing,” he said. “They are big, strong teams that play fast. (We have to take it) one period at a time, one shift at a time. It comes down to one goal games and we have to learn how to win those games. We have to defend well against these big teams.”
Having already played LA and Phoenix, the Islanders have an idea of what to expect from their Western opponents. The games will be physical (LA leads the league with 928 hits and Phoenix, 751, is fifth), but the Islanders did beat the Coyotes 6-1 on Oct. 8 and were in control of a large part of their 3-2 loss to the Kings.
“We played really well against LA when they came (to Long Island),” Andrew MacDonald said. “We should have won that game being up heading into the third.”
Like the loss to the Kings, there were positives to take out of the Islanders’ recent OT losses. The team played well 5-on-5, won over half their faceoffs and played physical. Still, puck-luck eludes the Isles, as does consistent special teams.
“It’s hard to take solace in those things, but your team needs confidence when it’s in a rut like this,” MacDonald said. “You have to realize you’re a good team and that you can get out of it. We know this is a big road trip for us and we’ll be focused and ready to go.”
The Islanders need strong starts on the upcoming trip to set the tone on the ice and take the energy out of some hostile buildings. They had a hot start against the Penguins Tuesday night, scoring twice in the first period, but that intensity out of the gate was largely fuelled by the animosity between the teams. Manufacturing that fire against an unfamiliar opponent is a lot tougher, but would go a long way against teams the Islanders haven’t seen in two seasons.
“That’s part of the game plan,” Capuano said. “Every time you step on the ice you have to engage and raise your battle level. We know it’s going to be a physical game and we have to respond to that.”
To their credit, the Islanders have more hits this season than St. Louis and San Jose, two teams with a lot of size. Matt Martin leads the league with 137 bodychecks and Cal Clutterbuck is in the top-20. As a team, the Isles kept pace in their games with the Kings and Penguins, but Capuano wants to see more intensity out of everyone to help turn things around.
“We need 10 or 20 percent more out of each guy,” he said. “We need that secondary scoring, but it starts with being physical, getting in on pucks and maintaining puck possession.”
The Islanders came within one goal of busting their slump on Saturday and Tuesday, so the team is itching to step up and take another shot.
“We’ve played a couple of good games where we came up short in OT and it’s frustrating,” Martin said. “These things are hard to get out of and we just have to be ready to play against St. Louis. We need to turn this thing around quickly and tomorrow would be a good start.”