TORONTO -- I never want to make too many direct comparisons between this year’s Islanders and last year’s, but it was hard to avoid last night. This 5-3 win looked an awful lot like the 5-3 win here on April 18.
John Tavares dominating? Check. He was 2-1-3 in April, 0-3-3 last night. Early deficit? Check. Down 2-0 last season, 1-0 last night. Continuing a run of resilient play on the road? Check. Last night marked five straight road wins, the first time that’s happened since the 2001-02 team won six straight on the road to open that season. And in April, the Isles were kicking off a season-ending five-game trip that cemented their playoff spot. Those Isles were 14-6-4 on the road, tied for fourth in the league in away points.
Anyway, there is still a massive hill to climb this season to even equal last season’s eighth-place finish and first-round playoff exit. But there are signs, like winning five straight on the road (after losing 10 straight earlier in the season) and winning six of eight overall.
-- Tavares is a beast. I really have nothing more to add there. I didn’t really touch on his game in the various stories off last night, focusing more on his being named to the Canadian Olympic squad, but it’s easy to take him for granted the way he’s playing now.
Plenty of people ask me whether the Islanders can or will re-sign Thomas Vanek. There are a million different factors, of course, but playing alongside one of the four or five best players in the league when he’s playing his best has to be some sort of selling point.
-- As I wrote and tweeted, Evgeni Nabokov’s injury, believed to be a quad strain, is not as serious as initially thought. He’ll miss this week and likely next, but that could be all, which may quell any organizational desires to go out and spend an asset for a goaltender.
Kevin Poulin was capable last night and, if his teammates play more third periods like last night’s in front of him, capable should be good enough to get through this no-Nabby stretch.
-- To that end, I focused on third periods after the game and it’s still the biggest difference between the 6-2-0 run and everything that preceded it. The Isles are +10 (14-4) in third-period goals the last eight; they were -22 (21-43) in the 37 games prior.
Last night’s third was about as boring and conservative as the Islanders can play, and the coaching staff must have loved it. They got the lead back early, extended it on Calvin de Haan’s lucky goal and not only didn’t give anything back right away, they kept the puck in the Leafs end for much of the third.
Even better was the response after Joffrey Lupul’s goal with 3:05 to go. No hung heads, no “here we go again” style mistakes. The Islanders tightened it up and were even better up one than they were up two. The final 1:13, after the Leafs pulled Jonathan Bernier, was the best the Isles have played in the final minute of a one-goal game all season.
-- Speaking of de Haan, how about this guy? He made a couple soft plays to lead to Leafs goals in the opening two periods (Poulin gave up a bad rebound and was flailing too much on Mason Raymond’s PPG in the second), but he seems very nonplussed by all of it: Good, bad or otherwise.
That’s what you need from a young defenseman. It’s what the Islanders saw in Griffin Reinhart and why he’s already penciled into next season’s lineup -- heck, maybe even this spring’s lineup, depending on what Edmonton does in the WHL. It’s what was missing from Matt Donovan’s game too often.
The ability to shake off a bad play or bad shift for a young defenseman seems to be the biggest attribute from the coaches and GMs who are quoted on the matter.
-- You’re also seeing -- and this is just educated speculation from me, without any discussions on the matter with Garth Snow or the coaching staff -- the Islanders starting to make their future plans.
The de Haan-Travis Hamonic pairing was a change not just to be better this season, but beyond. Andrew MacDonald’s UFA status and likely ability to command $5 million a year on the open market means this could be it for MacDonald as an Islander. Snow and the coaching staff needed to see if de Haan could handle 20+ minutes a night as a top-four D, so they dropped him in and he’s swum, not sunk.
With Reinhart coming next season and Lubo Visnovsky possibly back by the Olympic break, MacDonald is in a different position than he was just a couple months ago.
There could always be more productive contract talks or another injury. De Haan isn’t even 25 games into his NHL career, so he could regress. Lot of things that can change to make MacDonald more valuable to the Islanders.
But seeing the subtle moves, to me, means that the Islanders are already starting to take a different approach with their defensemen.
-- The team flew home last night, is off today and practices tomorrow before heading to Denver. I’ve cut out the middleman and am heading to Denver today, I hope, so I’ll have more stuff tomorrow from this country-crossing road trip.
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