Staple: Islanders, Panthers similar yet miles apart

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Bruno Gervais #8 of the New York Islanders Bruno Gervais #8 of the New York Islanders controls the puck against Chris Higgins #21 of the Florida Panthers. (Nov. 20, 2010) Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

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Arthur Staple Arthur Staple

Staple, with Newsday since 1997, has covered high school sports, hockey and football.

An NHL scout at Nassau Coliseum last night scoffed at the notion that the Islanders could seriously turn things around.

"The roster's pretty thin," he said. When it was noted to him that the Florida Panthers, last night's opponent, had a roster that was equally thin, he thought for a moment.

"Good point."

The Panthers have a coach, Peter DeBoer, who never worked above a minor-league level before he was hired last year. They are a team that hasn't made the playoffs since the 21st century began. They are a team with a fairly absentee fan base, closing off upper sections of its arena and handing away tickets like a street hawker dishing out coupons.

They are a lot like the Islanders, a lot like several teams in the salary-cap NHL that are in a prolonged down cycle and have changed coaches, GMs and even owners multiple times in search of profitability and on-ice success.

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Somehow, though, the Panthers looked miles ahead of the Islanders last night. That the hosts - who played before an announced crowd of 9,157, a 12 percent increase over Wednesday's crowd - managed a 1-0 lead after a period was a bit of a fluke: Former Islander Bryan McCabe gift-wrapped Matt Moulson's goal with an ugly giveaway and the Panthers cracked their first attempt off the post seconds in after an equally bad giveaway by James Wisniewski.

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But the 4-1 final in favor of the Panthers was more appropriate. The Islanders, in their second game under Jack Capuano and still in an evaluation period with their interim coach, played as if they're determined to receive Fs for this entire season.

"They didn't even do anything great, they just outworked us," Frans Nielsen said. "That can't happen."

Capuano's system, as described by the players, gives individual Islanders more freedom and creativity; all that it produced last night was an unwillingness to compete for pucks and close out space in the defensive zone, again hanging Dwayne Roloson out to dry.

Roloson has been in goal for the last seven of the Isles' 12-game winless streak, and he hasn't been to blame for any of the losses. His goals-against average coming into the game was 2.45, very close to Panthers goaltender Tomas Vokoun's 2.43; the difference was Vokoun's 7-6-0 record to Roloson's 2-8-1.

The guys in front of Roloson have to want to take pride in what they're doing, especially now that Scott Gordon - revealed over his two-plus seasons as a harsh taskmaster - is out and Capuano, the "players' coach," is in.

As thin as this roster is, there are equally thin rosters in many cities of the NHL that play harder and more consistently than the Islanders, who win games out of sheer will and determination and a desire to play harder than their opponents.

At 12 games and counting without a win, these Islanders have earned nothing but benchings, demotions and "bag skates," the dreaded but time-honored tradition of coaches forcing underperforming players to do wind sprints instead of practice.

Capuano acknowledged as much. "I thought we had a few passengers," he said. "As we move forward, they have to be held accountable."

For all the talk during the last week about an organization that does things in a minor-league manner and couldn't possibly put a decent lineup on the ice, a roster that looked hardly different from last night's won four of its first seven games for Gordon and got points in six of seven.

Last night, before another four-figure crowd that figures to be the norm from here until the end of the season, the Islanders let a team that looked a lot like them walk all over them.

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There's no excuse, no matter how thin the roster is.

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