Penguins 4, Islanders 3: Defense, Special Teams a Mess as Isles Lose 7th in Last 9

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Kevin Schultz, Islanders Point Blank:

It’s another loss for the Islanders — one they honestly played even with the Penguins at 5-on-5 — and another night where the same problems continue to plague them. And those problems aren’t just problems, they may more accurately be described as huge gaping holes in the bow that continue to sink the ship.

Defense

The defense was a fire drill the entire night. That’s a situation that has been made worse by injury and was not improved upon in the off-season, either. The combination of those two items is now coming back to kill the Islanders, as goaltender Kevin Poulin was hung out like wet laundry tonight. Each of the Penguins four goals were bang-bang plays and seamless cross-ice passes that are the kind of dazzling plays that make the Penguins one of the most dangerous offenses in the NHL. It was a gifted offensive team taking advantage of a far inferior opponent. The Penguins weren’t on another level, as might usually be the case, they were on another planet and there was nothing the Islanders defense could do about it.

Radek Martinek had a particularly bad night (and somehow ended up even in +/-). He got traffic coned badly on the Penguins third goal; completely stopped moving and, depending on your view, badly effected the outcome of the final dagger that came off Crosby’s stick with about a minute to go. Aaron Ness’ time in the press box should be short lived, one would think.

But Aaron Ness, who has been serviceable, or Martinek or Carkner or whomever. It is not pretty on defense for the Islanders. It is downright awful and there doesn’t seem to be an easy solution to make it better. Lubomir Visnovsky’s return might help, but will that really be enough?

Andrew MacDonald missed a period-plus after, as the MSG broadcast determined, getting smacked on the hand. For all the flack MacDonald takes from the fanbase about his ineffectiveness, many times justified, an injury to him would really throw things for a loop. He’s not a top pair guy, but if he misses any length of time that would make three of the Islanders opening night blueliners on the shelf.

Penalty Kill

The Penguins first goal was an absolute beauty to watch as hockey plays go. Malkin cross-ice to Crosby, bang onto Kunitz on the opposite door step, who just had to find a way to get it in the back of the net. Welcome to the power play, where the Islanders have plenty of goals to offer up.

The penalty kill right now is the worst unit in the NHL in the last 10 years — and that’s not a joke. They’re at 70.4%, a mark which no team has done worse than over a full season. The Islanders, thankfully, have 50+ games to keep from setting a new low-water mark and maybe positively regress a bit, but the penalty kill isn’t working (finally a bit of a change to try something different; Cal Clutterbuck got a spin out there). The Penguins were two-of-four on the night.

Over the last three games, the Islanders have killed three of their last seven penalties. Yikes.

Power Play

There were some power play issues as well, as the Islanders went 0-for-6 on the night. When you get out-scored by two on special teams, it’s an uphill climb. Andrew MacDonald’s injury saw the Islanders turn to both a five forward look as well as Thomas Hickey to run the point, neither of which worked out too well.

Thomas Vanek

In his return to the ice, Vanek potted two goals for the Islanders. Both came during the second period as the Islanders came back to tie the game at three after heading into the first intermission down 2-0.

The first goal started with a great pass out of the corner from Kyle Okposo — who is still at a point per game pace, by the way — to Vanek who sniped a shot past Jeff Zatkoff from the faceoff circle. It was a goal scorer’s goal.

Vanek’s second goal came off a mad scramble and fire drill play, but this time it was the Penguins all over the place in their own zone. Vanek took an absolute gift of a pass from a Pens’ defender and was in 2-on-1 with Tavares. No one ever got a clean shot off, but Tavares stuffed the puck closer to the net and Vanek was able to put it all the way in.

Frans Nielsen

With under a minute to go in the game, Nielsen took a horrible looking cross-check to the back from Craig Adams. The Islanders were up two men, six-on-four, and were pushing for a tying goal. I don’t see the league taking a look at the play, but it was an awful, egregious cross-check for sure. Nielsen more or less got off the ice under his own power but was in obvious pain. If he’s out any length of time, the Islanders will be missing the only played not named Vanek, Okposo or Tavares that has produced consistent offense.

Seven-of-Nine 

The Islanders have now lost seven of their last nine games, which I believes qualifies as a certifiably bad losing streak. It is a long season, there are many games left of course. This has also been a terrible stretch of hockey. The defense is a mess, the penalty kill is beyond atrocious, and there is no scoring outside of four players.

Josh Bailey

Josh Bailey has only one more point in an Islander uniform this year than Matt Moulson. He’s completely disappeared since scoring a hard-working game-winning goal in Pittsburgh a few Fridays ago. We’ve seen this before — Bailey seems to come and go. After a solid half-season last year and a good start this year, there was certainly hope that would change.

Decisions, Decisions

The lineup decisions from the coach still don’t make sense and tonight was sort of a confluence of many of them.

Brock Nelson played excellent hockey against Detroit on Saturday — seriously go watch that third period and OT again like I did earlier — but was not in the lineup tonight. Nelson has 7 points in 16 games, nearly a half point per game. That is excellent for a 22-year old rookie but somehow deserves to be benched in favor of Bailey and others.

Michael Grabner, who had quite a case made for him on the blog yesterday, found himself with less than 12 minutes of time on ice. Matt Martin, who for all the heart and soul he brings is not and never will be a goal scorer, was put out as the extra man on the 6-on-4. The ‘Matt Martin in front of the net play’ does not work and is not a thing that will get a quick goal late in game. If it actually did that, it should be used all the time. Someone like Grabner or Nelson, or guys who create but aren’t necessarily scorers like Bouchard or Bailey would make more sense.

When you need a goal, put guys on the ice whose job it is to create goals. When it’s late in a blow out,  put Martin on the ice to make sure there are no shenanigans.