BROOKLYN – New York Islanders coach Jack Capuano was talking about the tying goal in Game 3 of his team’s second-round series against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the goal that never should have happened and led to the overtime loss that now finds the Islanders needing to win three of the next four games to take the series.
He talked about having the players he wanted out there, even though it was a group that hadn’t played very well all night. He talked about having two centermen on the ice, even though one of them was Frans Nielsen, who was beaten cleanly on the draw on the Lightning's second goal. Then he talked about the Islanders not collapsing enough in front of their own net on the play.
And this is what hockey has come to, ladies and gentlemen. Because as far as these eyes could tell, the reason why the Islanders gave up that tying goal was they collapsed too much.
Teams now are so obsessed with blocking shots and collapsing in front of their goaltender that they forget to be aggressive on the puck. Just watch this goal again. First, Kyle Okposo gives Jonathan Drouin all kinds of time and space by not getting a stick on him as he skates around the offensive zone looking for an outlet. Then look at Nielsen, who’s too busy playing goalie that he leaves Nikita Kucherov open in the most dangerous area of the ice with the puck on his stick. And John Tavares, who half-heartedly pokes his stick into the play late and drops it? Well, the less said about that, the better.
The Islanders are now down in this series not because they didn’t collapse enough, but because they were far too passive in their own end of the ice. In many ways, the same thing happened on the Lightning’s third goal by Vladislav Namestnikov, where there were five blue sweaters down low, but none of them picking up the man in the slot.
Here’s a hint to the Islanders and every other team that now seems to think it can shot block its way to success: You actually don’t have to big a big hero and block shots if you prevent your opponent from shooting in the first place. (To reiterate: Blocked shots is one of the most overrated statistics in the game today. If you’re blocking shots, it means you don’t have the puck. That’s why so many bad teams are so good at it.)
Regardless, the Islanders are going to have to park Game 3 in a hurry if they hope to have any hope of winning this series. They did some very good things in that game, unleashing 39 shots one game after generating only eight in the final 40 minutes. Their fourth line was terrific. They got their defense involved in jumping up into the play, they got Josh Bailey going and they were dominant during the first period. Okposo registered 10 hits, although that might have been partly due to the Robert Svehla effect. (Svehla, you may recall, led the league in hits every year, largely because he’d register a ridiculous number of hits on home ice.)
“That was one of the best games we’ve played all year,” Islanders coach Jack Capuano said on a conference call Wednesday morning. “So there are a lot of positives we can take there. There are a lot of good things you take away from it for sure and hopefully we can build on those things. We played to our identity (in Game 3) and that’s they way we’re going to have to play if we’re going to have success in this series.”
The worst thing the Islanders could do is look at the result in Game 3 and adopt an ultra-defensive attitude that makes them play tentatively. This team is at its best when it keeps the pace of the game high and presses offensively. It would be well advised to adopt a similar attitude when it doesn’t have the puck in its own end.
“I think guys skated and moved the puck,” Capuano said. “Some games we do it and some games we don’t. For whatever reason, that’s been an area that’s been inconsistent in our game this year. And when we got in their zone, we didn’t make it a three versus five game. We have to get our ‘D’ actively involved. That’s what we want to do. You want to be up on the play.”