For game 18 of 82, I felt it was time to walk around the barn on Hempstead Turnpike and get some impartial takes on what Scott (Go-Go) Gordon is trying to accomplish with his Islanders and all that Bachman Turner Overdrivespeed stuff. I set out on my mission as the game started, with no notion of whether the Islanders would win or lose. (Boy, that would have stunk if they got their doors blown off).
My interviewees were offered anonymity if preferred. Here’s what they had to say:
Mattias Ohlund, veteran Canucks defenseman:
“They really took the game to us, were very aggressive. We handled it well in the first and third periods, but I give them a lot of credit for putting us on our heels.
“We had a hard time making plays. Only thanks to Louie (Roberto Luongo) were we still in it after the second. That’s a very impressive, quick style they play.”
Alain Vigneault, Vancouver head coach:
“Our execution in the second period was absent. Part of that was us and part of that you should give credit to them. Most of their scoring chances came off our turnovers. They worked for them. They come at you hard. Their defensemen are always in pre-pinch, which makes it a very aggressive system.”
(Interpretation break. All of the Canucks talked of the Islanders’ “pre-pinch.” This is terminology I had never heard before and the Islanders do not use. After asking around, my understanding is that a “pre-pinch” – as opposed to the more cautious “pinch” – is when the Islanders defensemen join the play aggressively inside the blueline before the opposition even wraps the puck around the boards in an attempt to get it out of the zone. It is a very risky play that could lead to odd-man breaks, but the Islanders have had success with it).
Rick Bowness, Vancouver assistant coach:
“I really like the way they play. You can never let up against them. You always have to be moving, especially with their defensemen always in pre-pinch.
“It’s a game where you have to take advantage when they have breakdowns. It’s an exciting style. If they continue to have games like the last three when everyone on the team is on the same page, there’s no reason they can’t be effective for the entire season.”
Visiting Western Conference pro scout:
“It’s an exciting system, and as you saw tonight it can be a nightmare for opposing teams to handle it. My only question over the course of a long season is the fatigue factor. I’m sure their coaching staff and strength and conditioning coach have worked since the beginning of camp to prepare them for the rigors.
“I love what the Islanders are doing. I don’t think you’d hear any complaints if it became a trend around the league because it’s certainly a helluva lot more exciting than the trap or the lock. The big question is whether they can sustain it for the full season. No matter what, I give Gordon high marks for not dipping his toe in and instead going full-throttle from game one.”
John Garrett, former NHL goalie, current Vancouver TV analyst:
“I like what Gordon is trying to do. He wants to win games, but also do it in an entertaining style. It’s nice to see since we’re supposed to be in the entertainment business. Gordon is not like a lot of other coaches in the league that want to win 1-0 by keeping everyone in the neutral zone.
“You like to see a good hard forecheck, a team being aggressive, playing hard and giving the fans something to watch. Look at a guy like Tim Jackman: he’s big and he skates pretty well, but in this system he’s doing everything with speed and he’s effective doing it.
“It’s no secret Gordon doesn’t have all the horses right now to perfectly execute his style, but the Islanders seem to be getting better each game. Mark Streit might be their only defenseman right now perfectly suited to the system. Over time, I’m sure they will add pieces. It will be interesting to see how the Islanders develop under Gordon as the kids mature and they make changes to the lineup. But right now, I’m impressed by what I see.”
Visiting Eastern Conference pro scout:
“The last three weeks, the Islanders looked like a team with a plan and a focus and a system like they haven’t in a while. They started out the season kind of rough. Now instead of being disjointed and having players going in three different directions, they’re in sync. The puck pursuit has been outstanding. As a scout, it’s fun to watch.
“I think they are surprising some teams and they probably will for at least the first half of the season. Maybe they’ll do it all year. This has become a passive league. Most teams play a very passive style. All of a sudden you have a team like the Canucks tonight or Ottawa over the weekend and they’re playing a team as aggressive as the Islanders. No matter how much you do film study or prepare for it, it takes a while to get adjusted. It can be a shock to the system when you’re so used to playing against a trap.
“The downside is that when you push and push, there are bound to be some breakdowns. You give a 3-on-2 to a Sedin and they are often going to burn you. The Islanders have had fewer breakdowns the last 6-7 games, so it’s obvious Gordon and his staff have made it work. I think a lot of observers are paying attention to what the Islanders are doing and curious to see how the system holds up over 82 games.”
Rob Davison, former Islander and current Vancouver defenseman:
“That’s a great forecheck they have. They’re always coming at you 2-hard (two forwards) from the beginning of the game until the end. It causes a lot of turnovers if you don’t execute.
“We knew what to expect coming in, which is why we were okay in the first period. But even when you know what’s coming, if they execute and we don’t, it’s trouble. They pre-pinch a lot and it paid off, especially in the second period when they really carried the play.
“I think for the Islanders to make it work night after night, they have to be physical like tonight and it will be a challenge to do it game after game. But who knows? We’ll see over time. This was one of the toughest games we’ve had all year. There’s reason to think that as the season goes on, they might only get better at it.”
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