Frans Nielsen of the Islanders skates against the Ottawa Senators....

Frans Nielsen of the Islanders skates against the Ottawa Senators. (March 19, 2013) Credit: Jim McIsaac

Frans Nielsen didn't hesitate when asked about his more focused role during the past few weeks.

"I love it," Nielsen said of being in more of a defensive center spot, assigned to counter the opposing teams' top lines. "I just love knowing who I'm going up against."

Nielsen has seemed an ill fit at times to the various jobs he's been given this season. He began the shortened season on the first-unit power-play point, along with Mark Streit, a makeshift arrangement with Lubomir Visnovsky not in an Islanders uniform. Nielsen picked up points early this season with the Isles' good power play, but it diminished his work at even strength and on the penalty kill.

Ever since Jack Capuano found linemates who work well with Nielsen in Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey, two of the more skilled two-way wingers the Islanders have on the roster, Nielsen has played a more determined game.

The team-wide clunker in Pittsburgh two weeks ago stands out like a sore thumb, when Sidney Crosby torched the Islanders with five assists, but even with that game, Nielsen is a plus-1 in his last 11 games and also has a goal and five assists.

"I think as a line, we've started to take pride in our play without the puck, which is what you need when you're going against the other team's best guys," Nielsen said. "We were getting frustrated for a while because we weren't scoring, but we have to just not care about that. You do your job defensively and that gives you confidence even when you don't score for a game or two."

Nielsen is tied for fourth on the Islanders with 16 points, and that is basically what he is: A point every-other-game player, a No. 3 center who's been jammed into a No. 2 slot at times without a true second scoring center on the squad.

"I think that's the missing piece in our lineup," Nielsen said with his usual candor. "Hopefully [Ryan] Strome can be that guy next season.

Goaltending a sore point

Evgeni Nabokov was more upset about Brandon Sutter's game-winner in Friday night's 4-2 loss to the Penguins than he was about Chris Kunitz's late second-period goal from near the blue line.

"I saw [Sutter] all the way, I was right there," Nabokov said. "When you don't see the puck, it's hard to make the save.''

Nabokov and the two backups he's had this season have not put together solid numbers. The Isles have a 3.38 goals-against average, better than only today's opponent, the Panthers. Nabokov has a 13-10-3 record, but his .903 even-strength save percentage is lowest among the 30 NHL starting goaltenders.

Jack Capuano tried to change the goaltending mojo a little by announcing a day early, rather than the day of the game, that Nabokov will start today.

"[The numbers] are not something you can be proud of,'' Nabokov said. "But I know the only number that matters is wins. If we have to win 4-3, 5-4, I'll take that. We all need to be better on defense, goalies, too.''

By the numbers

The Isles need to win each of their remaining six home games, beginning today, to finish at .500 at the Coliseum this season. Their 11 regulation home losses are three more than any other NHL team has. On the flip side, with 11 of their last 16 on the road after today, the Isles' 8-4-1 mark away from home could serve them well. Only the Canadiens, Ducks and Blackhawks have fewer losses on the road.GOALS





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