To say the New York Islanders have some goaltending issues right now is to say John Spano had a few character foibles in 1996.
Spano, you might recall, was the snake behind the greatest fraud in sports history, while the Islanders, you must know, can’t seem to keep a beach ball out of a mouse hole. As a result, one of the NHL’s most entertaining, high-octane teams has been buried in 14th place in the Eastern Conference.
It’s a bummer for the league, a lost opportunity of sorts, for the Islanders play exactly the type of game that the NHL likes to market. They stretch the ice east to west and push forward with abandon, relinquishing their own territory to claim the opposition’s like a bunch of hasty Checkers players. And yet as fun as they are to watch, it’s hard to promote a team that ranks dead last in its division.
For the Islanders and their fans, it has to be maddening. Here’s a team with enough skill, enough speed and enough jump to run with anyone in the league, who, by virtue of its goaltending, is an Eastern Conference doormat. The Isles are still alive in the ultra-competitive Metropolitan Division, but the mess between the pipes has left them hanging by a thread.
Consider this: in their past six games, the Islanders have averaged just a shade under 4 goals per game, outshot the opposition by an average of 36-32…and won twice. Twice in this stretch they have lost 6-4. Lacrosse might be popular on Long Island, but it shouldn’t get in the way of hockey.
That six-game sample is a microcosm of the Islanders’ season. The offense, night after night, has gone above and beyond the call, only to be let down by the goaltending. An 82-game season is a group project, and right now the netminders simply aren’t pulling their weight.
Three goals on any given night should be enough to win a hockey game – a notion that has gained circulation thanks to years of reliability. The 2013-14 season has upheld this impression as every single team in the NHL averaging more than 2.70 goals per game has a winning record. The Islanders, at 2.74, are the lone exception.
The way Kevin Poulin has played of late – and especially Monday night against the Bruins – has left the Islanders scrambling to clean up his mess. Imagine a baseball team handing the ball to its fifth starter every single day and then trying to account for his implosion by scoring ten runs before the opposition. That’s what the Islanders are up against right now.
In their 21 wins this season, the Isles have scored 4.10 goals per game – that’s the cost, the “market price” of victory for a team with a cumulative save percentage just over .900. And that average isn’t a product of the offense scoring more than it needs to in games the Islanders win. Rather, it’s a direct reflection of what has to happen for the team to secure two points.
The good news for the Islanders is starter Evgeni Nabokov returned to action last night (in relief of Poulin) after missing ten games with a groin injury. He will handle the bulk of the goaltending duties from here on out, assuming he can stay healthy. The bad news is that Nabokov wasn’t all that good when healthy and may not offer much of an upgrade over Poulin.
Then again, this guy represents an “upgrade over Poulin,” so Nabokov won’t have to do much to make a positive difference. But Nabby, at 38 years old, can’t handle the workload he used to, and thus Jack Capuano will be forced to throw Poulin in there every four games or so through the rest of the season. The Islanders have to hope a little rest will do both goalies some good.
Outside of that, their options are limited. The goalie market is thin right now and neither Ryan Miller nor James Reimer – two names popping up in trade rumors – will come cheap. The Islanders already forfeited two high-round draft picks earlier this season in the Thomas Vanek trade so it’s hard to see them mortgaging their future further.
Whether the Islanders like it or not, their fortunes – for now – rest in the hands of Nabokov and Poulin. The offense has done its best to pick up the slack, but it’s clear that the goaltending has to start chipping in as well. Otherwise, a team that has the talent to play well into May will be on the living room couch by April.