Inexplicably, Isles First Line Called Out After Loss to Senators

Kevin Schultz

After last night’s loss to the Senators, the blame was laid squarely on the first line of John Tavares, Matt Moulson and Brad Boyes by coach Jack Capuano.

“Not very good. That’s all I’ll say,” he responded when asked by the media about the top line’s performance. The line, which has also been used heavily as the top power play unit, had failed to notch a goal for the first time since March 7th, a 2-1 overtime loss to the Rangers (but Moulson and Boyes still assisted on Visnovsky’s goal last night).

Of course when a coach says he won’t talk about something, that gives the media more reason to ask about it again. Capuano responded to the next question about the first line with a lengthy answer:

“Don’t know if that will be Johnny’s line next game. Your best players have to be your best players. It’s nothing against that line, they’re high character guys, but it just doesn’t seem lately they’re getting it going and we’ve talked as a coaching staff about it a little bit, um, do we bide some time and let it go for another game or two? Maybe. But we’re not getting the production out of that line that we need right now. So, um, but we’ll see, you know what those three have been there for us over the course of the year and we’ve got a lot of faith in them, but, sometimes a little tweak can make the difference too.”

Capuano hasn’t named names much this season, instead saying cryptic things such as the team had ‘passengers’ who weren’t playing up to par (without naming them, mind you) and repeatedly refusing to comment on the play of the netminders, whomever it may be. Some of the few players who have been named — David Ullstrom and Michael Grabner come to mind — have been healthy scratches and had their ice time cut. So it was a bit of a surprise when, in this case, he did in fact name names and some important ones at that.

What we have here, at this critical point in the season, is the head coach hinting at flat out saying that his top line, and the most consistent line, is in need of breaking up. Three points out of eighth and in the midst of an important homestand seems like the exact opposite time of when you would want to mess with success or experiment with new line combos.

Not only that, but the first line has been scoring the past few games and they weren’t at fault for any of the Senators goals last night. The way it sounds from Capuano, you would think that they were having a Brad Richards-esque slump.

The first line had a goal in Florida on Saturday and actually scored the only three goals the Islanders as a whole had in the two other games last week; Sunday’s 6-1 embarrassment in Pittsburgh and the subsequent 2-0 shutout of Tampa Bay. Not only that, but the only Senators goal they were on the ice for last night was the empty netter, a situation where, well duh, you wouldn’t want anyone else on the ice.

Night in and night out the Islanders have been led by this top line. The team has lived and died with it. On the year, the team has had 43% of its 84 goals come from one of those three players. Of the 228 points the team has, 38% of those have come from one of those three. And yet, the blame is laid on them and there’s serious talk of breaking up the band.

The top line didn’t have a great night last night, and the team’s best players are just as accountable for their actions as anyone else. But, they have carried more than their fair share of the load throughout the year thus far.

For all the talk of passengers (whose identities mostly remain concealed), it’s odd to call out the first line so blatantly. In fact, it doesn’t seem to make much sense, especially on a night when the referees, or the goaltending, or the team’s collapse as a whole were all deserving targets.

Heck, it wouldn’t make sense on most any other night. John Tavares sure doesn’t seem like the kind of player who ever needs extra motivation. The line has been clicking and never seemed to experience a major dry spell ever since Brad Boyes replaced Kyle Okposo on right wing earlier this season.

We’ll see what the lines look like Thursday night at the Coliseum when the Canadiens come to town — it’ll be a surprise too, as the Islanders are not practicing today. Maybe Michael Grabner will be back and get another shot alongside Moulson and Tavares. Or, if things get really crazy, could and the Moulson-Tavares duo* get broken up? We’ll have to wait and see, but it is the wrong focus right now.

The Islanders just surrendered a multi-goal lead in each of the last two third periods. Figuring out why that happened and correcting it should be a prime concern. Not tinkering with lines that are scoring.

* – Fifth highest scoring duo in the NHL in the past three years