ON TERRY MURRAY AND "PRESSURE-FREE" HOCKEYMaple Leafs 2, Islanders 1; NYI fall 12 pts back

9:55 pm: Terry Murray said it. He really said it.

After winning just two of ten games entering the All-Star break, the Islanders have played their best and most exciting hockey of the season since. On this blog and in our “Islanders Interactive” segments, I have mentioned on several occasions that I would like to see the team’s key performers play consistently well from the start of the season all the way through. This is what defines players. After all, we’ve seen this franchise, and individual players, go on impressive runs after being written out of the playoff race many times in recent years.

(And by the way, this goes for the current New Jersey Devils, too. Let’s see how the Islanders, Devils and any other team capable of rejoining the race do when they get within six points of eighth place and the games start to mean something again).

But that’s blogger-talk, mere talk-show fodder in Toronto (as recently as last night). Never – never! – did I imagine that a professional hockey operations staffer would utter similar sentiments out loud in a press briefing.

But Coach Murray has always been a different cat. He’s the man who once said his Flyers, while in the Stanley Cup Final, were “in a choking situation.” That didn’t go well. That didn’t end well.

Murray was nearly as tongue-tied after his Kings were wiped out by the Islanders, 3-0, on Saturday at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. He also, no doubt, didn’t mean any harm or disrespect. The LA head coach was more frustrated with his team’s failure against the Islanders after a long winning streak.

His comments, as first brought to light by Newsday NHL columnist Arthur Staple, were startling at first glance because here was a veteran NHL coach articulating into a microphone what I’d be saying and writing for two weeks on a little blog. So I double and triple-checked Murray’s quote against the reporting of Kings team-sponsored blogger Rich Hammond, a former editor of the Los Angeles Daily News. Rich is as reliable as it gets. Here’s Hammond’s transcription of the full comment from Murray, whom – for context’s sake – was asked about Michael Grabner and the Islanders’ speed:

“The Islanders, right now, are in a very relaxed state,” said Murray. “Their players are just playing. They’re stretching guys out. They’re leaving the zone early, to look for those long opportunities. There’s no pressure, there’s no consequence for anything that’s happening out there right now. So that’s the easiest time in your life to play hockey, is when you’re just having fun. Give them credit for doing that. They came at us and won the game. They beat us 3-0.”

A bit of a backhanded compliment, but Murray gave the Islanders proper credit. You certainly cannot kill him for his honesty.

Everyone that has followed the NHL – anyone that has followed this team for any of the last 15 years – knows wins come more easily when the pressure is off, whether it’s January, February or March. This is not taking anything away from anyone. All athletes can do is play the schedule, no matter what the standings say.

With a few more wins in the next week, the Islanders can put themselves in position to prove how big they can play when the games are big. Opportunity awaits.

*

Maple Leafs 2, Islanders 1

Funny thing about Phil Kessel. He gets killed a lot for his hangdog demeanor and for being acquired for a second overall pick and what will likely be a top-ten pick (as if he made the deal, even if he forced it). Broadcasters have a field day with his minus-20 and yet you put on the Toronto games and he is the one player on a limited team that can create offense out of nothing. That’s what he did with a little over five minutes left in giving the Maple Leafs a 2-1 victory over the Islanders.

Al Montoya was terrific for the Islanders. The tendency is to want to give one of the Islanders’ goalie coaches credit, but in reality they haven’t really had any time to work with the recent Phoenix farmhand turned Islanders’ No. 1. The play in the Islanders’ end was often abysmal, but Montoya kept his team in the game with at least a half-dozen big stops.

Matt Moulson scored again. Jack Capuano’s team is going to need goal scoring from players other than Moulson, John Tavares and Michael Grabner. Milan Jurcina suffered a groin injury. The Islanders face a major challenge when they play the varsity, the Flyers in Philadelphia on Thursday night.

Carolina gave up a goal to the Rangers late in regulation and lost in a shootout, 3-2, so the Islanders are 12 points out of eighth. Teams making a late rush in the East may be heartened to know more than one playoff berth is available. Eric Staal lined up his brother for a huge hit, and as a result Marc Staal suffered an injury. The Rangers can win without their most explosive forward, Marian Gaborik. They cannot afford to lose their best defenseman, emerging as one of the best in the East this season, for long without their playoff spot being in serious jeopardy.

Comments on tonight’s game and all this stuff. See you Wednesday.