Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Love of the Game

Success is a very relative term. As an Islanders fan, it's fair to characterize the "Charles Wang" era as successful. We've reached the playoffs 4 of 6 seasons (including this one) after failing to make the playoffs in, based on my latest calculations, the previous 47 years. Sure, each trip to the big dance has been one-and-done, but again we are stressing success as a relative ideal. It's not like this is a Devils or Red Wings blog.

As modest as our achievements have been, it's been fun to feel that we have a team that is at least capable of making some noise come April. And believe me, being a die-hard fan throughout the truly dark days of the late 1990s, I wouldn't trade it for anything.

But as with anything in life, there are trade-offs. For me, it has been my experience as a fan. With success comes expectations, and with expectations comes a whole new way to watch the game. Over the past few years, my personal fan experience has (d)evolved. Lately it's become more about strictly measuring wins-and-losses. It's about monitoring the standings with intense focus, and scoreboard watching to gauge the success of those teams within striking distance. It's about hoping that other intra-conference games don't go into OT, turning into 3-point games. It's about calculating playoff scenarios based on "games in hand" and remaining schedule.

What it's not about is enjoying the game for the love of it. And I have to say, that's exactly why I am enjoying this final stretch of games. It's the same feeling I experienced back in 2006 when we were playing "meaningless" games in late March / early April. I go to the Coliseum now and enjoy the game like I did when I was younger. Sure, wins always mattered, but I could still have a great time at a game regardless of the outcome. The pressure of wins, points, and standings all go out the window. It's all about having fun watching the sport I love.

This may all sound a little touchy-feely, but there really is a palpable difference for me now. Granted, I still need to see the team put forth a solid effort to be happy. And last night versus the Penguins, the team delivered. The fact that they won was a complete afterthought - to be honest, I was hoping for a loss. Yes, I'm one of those who is hoping we tank to maximize our chances for the #1 pick in this year's draft.

These are the same feelings that kept me watching and cheering throughout the late 90's, when we were typically mathematically eliminated from playoff contention before Christmas. As much as I'd love to still be in the playoff hunt, it's a nice consolation to be reminded of why I love this game in the first place.

Monday, March 17, 2008

To Be Young Again

The biggest issue I've had with Ted Nolan during his tenure as Islanders coach is his clear favoritism towards certain players over others. We've seen it in terms of overall ice time, power play time, and in his choice of healthy scratches. But more so we've seen it in his bias towards his veteran players over the young guys. So the only bright spot in our current situation (9 points out with 9 games to play, countless injuries) is that he has no choice but to showcase some of our prospects at the NHL level.

Looking at the box score of our most recent game in Montreal, you'll find a veritable "who's who" of Islanders prospects - Ben Walter, Jeff Tambellini, Steve Regier, Blake Comeau, Matthew Spiller, and Tim Jackman. Seeing as we have only 13 players (excluding goaltenders and Shawn "Gimpy" Bates) under contract for next season, these players must be looking at this home stretch as their best opportunity to prove themselves, before the wheeling and dealing of the off-season begins.

As excited as I am to see more from these players, it also puts a spotlight on this team's biggest problem - scoring goals. Aside from Kyle Okposo (more on him in a minute), these are clearly our top prospects. And as you go down the list, you won't find many (any?) pure goal scorers. Sure, Tambellini has potential, but the guy has simply not stepped up at the NHL level. Say what you want to about his limited ice time, but it didn't prevent Comeau from making an immediate impact in essentially the same role. From there, does anyone project Ben Walter or Steve Regier much above third-line action? Is Tim Jackman more than a fourth-line role player?

Without question both Sean Bergenheim and Blake Comeau have been pleasant surprises this year, and both are prototypical "Ted Nolan Type" players. But despite their hard work and (overused cliche alert!) grit, neither are likely to be much more than 20+ goal scorers throughout their careers. We need prospects that can finish, not just work hard. Over this past offseason, every free agent we signed and every player we drafted was commended by the Isles press machine for their (choose 3 of the following 5):

Character, Grit, Work Ethic, Passion, Heart

Please, can the next player we bring into the fold be known for SCORING? I can see the press release now:

"XXXX is a somewhat dedicated player. He's not known as a 'team first' kind of guy, and will take a shift or two off here and there. But the guy scored 45 goals last year and is projected as our top-line center within 2 years. So we'll leave the grit to our third and fourth line players".

I know, I know...sounds like Yashin and we all know how that worked out. But one thing I promise, if Alexei continued his level of production from Ottawa we would not have soured on him nearly as quickly, if at all. Especially now that we as Islanders fans understand the premium on scoring, I think we'd all be willing to forgive an occasional lapse in effort for a guy that can net 35+ each year.

All of which brings us to tomorrow night, and the NHL debut of Kyle Okposo. Is he the real deal? We'll find out soon enough. But the fact that his reputation is already evolving from a "goal scorer" to a "playmaker" doesn't give me the warm-and-fuzzies. OK so I'm (mostly) kidding...I really am excited to see what this kid can bring to the table, even over the course of a brief 9-game stint.

Worst case, the season continues to spiral out of control and we find ourselves in the running for Steven Stamkos, one of the more heralded offensive prospects to come along in recent years.

Of course, even if we get the #1 pick we'll probably draft a goalie...

Monday, March 10, 2008

Stick a Fork in 'Em

The Islanders are not making the playoffs this year. And as I type those words, I hear echoes from Islanders Nations screaming "Thank you Captain Obvious!". I'm an optimist by nature, but as some point you have to be a realist, too.

As I prepared to write some quick hits as to what is wrong, what is going to happen...etc., I perused some of my fellow blog boxer's thoughts. Coincidentally, the esteemed BD Gallof hit on exactly what I was going to say. Read it here. And since we are no longer in high school and plagiarism isn't a suspendable offense, I'll let his words do the talking.

So there you have it, my post is just a link to his post. Ahh, nice and easy. Do I feel guilty? No. I'm putting forth the same type of effort the team has provided over the last few games. There's a reason they call it "skating". BD, feel free to add my name to the byline. Other than the Wile E. Coyote reference, you reflected my thoughts exactly.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Core of the Four

It's about 40 minutes prior to game-time for today's matchup versus the Florida Panthers. This afternoon, the organization is honoring the "Core of the Four" - the players, coaches, and personnel that were a part of all 4 Cups during the dynasty era.

My thoughts after watching the obligatory video montage of highlights from the four Finals victories:

- As an Islanders fan, is it possible to get tired of watching Nystrom score the OT game winner against the hated Flyers to give the team it's first Cup? I can only imagine the emotions I would have felt if I was old enough to be there, and fully appreciate the accomplishment. I've seen that clip hundreds of times, and it never gets old.

- My best memories of that era, as young as I was, are of a team that always worked hard, always worked together. It's that concept of every man pulling his weight that has been missing from this team. Actually, in this age where the business of hockey often overshadows the game of hockey, it's a trait that you rarely see anywhere in the league.

Now we're onto the player introductions. Watching Potvin come out carrying the Stanley Cup over his head fills me both with feelings of nostalgia and the overwhelming desire to experience that once again. It's great to see the Cup on home ice in March, but I'd much rather see it in June.

Of all of the greats here, who had a better run than Ken Morrow? In 1979, he is named player of the year in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association. In 1980, he wins a gold medal as part of the "Miracle on Ice", playing in arguably the greatest game in the history of sports. That same year, he wins the first of four straight cups...a nice welcome to the NHL. He might not be first name that comes to mind, but if I could take anyone's hockey career for myself, it would probably be Ken Morrow.

The current players come out to the ice now, wearing throwback jerseys of the former players. There's Guerin wearing the familiar "C", but with "Potvin" written across his back. Comrie's assuming the role of Trottier. I'm not sure at this point if these jerseys are going to be worn for the game itself or just warmups, although my guess would be warmups only. I think it would be kind of cool, albeit a little confusing, if they kept these for the game. How great would it be to hear "Trottier to Bossy...GOAL!" one more time? There's probably a league rule about wearing different names on your jersey, though. I'll have to find out about that one.

Overall it was a nice ceremony. It lacked the punch of Al Arbour's 1500th game ceremony, but as I've previously written, that was a particularly special night. It would hard to beat that, period.

Now, moving on to today's contest with Florida. I'm not going to go so far as to call this a must-win...with 4 more games against the Rangers and two against Philly, we can still gain some ground by winning those "four-point games". But from a gut feel standpoint, if we can't beat the Panthers...at home...with most of the greatest Islanders in history watching...it'd be hard to argue the playoffs are looking good.

The biggest concern would have to be that Wade Dubielewicz is starting today in place of DiPietro (attending to a death in the family). I'm a Dubie fan, but with just two appearance in the last 62 days (covering about 27 games) it's easy to think rust might be factor. The defense is going to need to play an inspired game today. On the brightside, we're facing Florida's backup in Craig Anderson rather than Tomas Vokoun.

Here's my pregame prediction (yes, I know I said I was done making predictions). The Islanders win with authority for a change. I'm thinking a 5-2 final, with one goal by Sean Bergenheim. And by the way, with all due respect, someone needs to tell Sean he looks like a porn star with that moustache.

No live in-game blog from me today. I think I'd rather focus on the game. Besides, I'll leave the live blogging to the expert (Tom) over at The Tiger Track.

Let's go Islanders!