Islanders tie success to better penalty kill

Islanders center Frans Nielsen is defended by New Islanders center Frans Nielsen is defended by New Jersey Devils center Tim Sestito during the second period of a preseason NHL hockey game at Barclays Center. (Sept. 21, 2013) Photo Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

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Frans Nielsen is not one to couch his words, or pull punches. When thinking back to last spring's Isles-Penguins playoff series, he knows what went wrong.

"I do think we lost that series because of the penalty kill and their power play," Nielsen said. "Five-on-five, we were the better team. We had a lot of meetings so far in camp and I think everybody is agreeing that [the penalty kill] wasn't good enough and it can't happen again if we're in that situation again, playoffs or regular season."

The fact is, aside from a 12th-place rank in 2010-11, the Isles have been a below-average team on the penalty kill since the 2004-05 lockout. Always in the bottom half of the league, usually in the bottom 10. Last season's failures while a man short were particularly galling for two reasons.

One was how glaring their weaknesses were against the powerful Penguins, who converted one-third (7 of 21) of their power-play chances in the six-game series -- including the Game 3 overtime winner.

And two, the Isles started the shortened season killing off 25 of 26 power plays over their first seven games, a 96.2 percent kill rate. Over the next 41 games, the Isles killed off 89 of 116 chances, or 76.7 percent, leaving them 21st for the season and vulnerable come playoff time against the NHL's second-best power play.

The relative success during that 2010-11 season came from the attacking threat of Nielsen and Michael Grabner, who combined for 13 of the Isles' league-leading 15 short-handed goals that season. But there was more to it, just as there was more to the PK's playoff meltdown than just a very talented Penguins group attacking the Islanders.

"We weren't getting pucks 200 feet [down the ice], especially against that team. I don't think we were giving up outside opportunities; it was a lot of inside chances, and we weren't blocking many shots," said Travis Hamonic, who along with defense partner Andrew MacDonald logged the most short-handed ice time on the team. "It wasn't just that series. It was a common theme the second half of last year and it's not acceptable."

Assistant coach Brent Thompson runs the penalty killing unit and the players say there have been only a few tweaks to the system. With Marty Reasoner gone, the second forward unit behind Nielsen and Grabner will be different, likely to include Casey Cizikas to help with faceoff wins. Matt Martin and Josh Bailey will do PK work. John Tavares may even get some time to win defensive-zone draws.

But the changes are, for most of the Isles' penalty killers, simply about will.

"I don't know if I can say this," Nielsen said, "but we have to show some [guts], basically. Block some shots, work hard, do the stuff that hurts. We got outworked on the PK at times last season and we can't have that."

Jack Capuano's main theme has been reiterated already this camp. "Goaltending and special teams are what win you games in this league," he said. Those are two areas the Islanders need better play, sometimes in tandem.

The Islanders' raised expectations for this coming season come with raised expectations for special teams. The Tavares-led power play has enough firepower, but the real question may be whether the penalty kill has enough willpower.

"You have to get better at it," Nielsen said. "You're not going to win a Stanley Cup without a good PK."

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