Game Time: 7:30PM CST
TV/Radio: WGN Ch. 9, WGN-AM 720
You, In Weird Cities: Lighthouse Hockey
There are Long Island residents in town tonight on somewhat of a roll recently, and it’s not Jeff Rosenstock playing the Metro tonight, although anyone interested in the robust LI hardcore and post-hardcore scene would do well to go to the show rather than watch the game, or at the very least pick up Rosenstock’s excellent record Worry. which topped about a zillion best-of lists in 2016. But that digression aside, the Islanders are at the UC tonight in desperate need of points after a comeback win last night in Dallas.
Since these teams last met, Garth Snow finally launched Jack Capuano and his amazing hair after the Islanders started the year off like shit. It wasn’t all Cap’n Jack’s fault, Snow saddled him with whatever’s left of Andrew Ladd, and Jaro Halak predictably only disappointed after an excellent World Cup of Hockey. But while Ladd is still here and certainly trying, Halak has been demoted to the minors, and Doug Weight has been taken on as interim head coach after the Cap’n got keelhauled. Since taking over, Weight has gone 13-5-2, grabbing .700 of the points available, and entering tonight holding down the last Wild Card spot in the east with games in hand on their most direct competition.
It’s possible that Capuano had just gone stale in the locker room on top of an admittedly flawed roster, but in his 20 games since taking over, the Islanders are now a positive possession team at 50.56, whereas they were 46.34 from the start of the season to Cap’s ouster. And really, with the talent on the roster, there was no reason for them to ever be that bad. John Tavares in particular has gone the fuck off under Weight (GET IT?), with a 61.05 share, 9 goals, 14 assists and 23 points in those 20 games. Tavares has been so quietly dominant for so long, it’s of little shock that he’s doing this once again and getting little notice for it, but it certainly explains why the Islanders are suddenly playoff relevant again. And he’s had some help too, as Anders Lee is on pace for his first 30 goal season with 23 through 61 games. It’s been thanks to an uptick in shooting percentage (16.3% this year, 11.1% career before this year), because he’s getting basically the same number of shots on goal as he did last year (2.28 last year, 2.31 this year). Josh Bailey is the third skater on the Isles top line, who is having the opposite problem of generating more shots on net but having his shooting percentage dip from his career average. The problem for the Islanders was and continues to be that everyone who is not Tavares-adjacent in their lineup cannot get out from under the opposition, at least when Capuano was behind the bench. Things have been better since Weight took over, but their bottom six still regularly gets their skulls caved in. And as of last night, the Islanders added even more dynamism to their lineup with former first round pick Josh Ho-Sang making his NHL debut. Ho-Sang has always had a flare for pissing hockey people off (which certainly has nothing to do with the fact that he is both black, Asian, and Jewish) since his days in junior, and managed to do so already one game into his NHL career by choosing to wear number 66. Ho-Sang explained himself quite maturely for a 21 year-old yesterday when asked about it, saying that he is paying tribute to Mario Lemieux, but of course that wasn’t good enough for most people, so he’ll surely be the subject of scorn among the eggs and Reddit commentariat for the foreseeable future. But this kid has all the skill in the world to stuff it right up all of their asses, even if he was a -4 in shot attempts in 15 minutes last night.
Even in the Doug Weight led renaissance, much of the puck driving burden on the Isles blue line is born by Johnny Boychuk and the dearly departed Nick Leddy, particularly since Travis Hamonic hasn’t played in almost two months, but may play tonight. But again, Leddy and Boychuk play significant minutes behind Tavares, and the with/without numbers aren’t pretty. If Hamonic is in the lineup, it gives Weight another option to take on top competition when he can get the matchup he wants, but for all of Hamonic’s talent, he generally absorbs top assignments as opposed to flipping the ice on them, much like an Alex Pietrangelo. Thomas Hickey provides some puck movement from the bottom pairings for the Islanders, but he has always had defensive deficiencies. Calvin de Haan can move alright for his size, and Dennis Seidenberg was basically toast last year and hasn’t done much to disprove that on Flatbush this year.
With Jaro Halak in the minors, Thomas Greiss has gotten a starter’s workload for the first time at age 31, and up until the beginning of February, he had done fantastic with the job. But his month-to-month save percentage have gone .925, .914, .930, .935, .896. which would indicate that that amount of time in net is catching up to him. He made 41 appearances over 82 games last year, and has made 40 in 62 this year. He’s perfectly capable, throwing up a .917 overall and .926 at evens, but he’s had some serious clangers mixed in, including giving up 7 to the Hurricanes the last time he made back-to-back starts back in mid January right before Capuano was fired. The Isles are desperate, as tonight is their game in hand, so Weight may come right back with Greiss despite him letting up 4 on 25 shots in Dallas last night, as J-F Berube last made a start on 2/19 at home against the Devils where he still gave up 4, and is sporting a robust .896 overall with a .910 at 5v5. It’s something to monitor, but the smart money is on Greiss going again.
As for the Men of Four Feathers, nothing like a round of injuries and illness to derail what had been a pretty stable forward group for the past couple of weeks. With Nick Schmaltz sick with the not-mumps and Artem Anisimov once again leaving a game early, the Top 6 groupings now have Hartman in Schmaltz’s spot on Toews’ left, and Tanner Kero in between The Style Boyz. All of this has left Marcus Kruger centering Andrew Desjardins and Jordin Tootoo, which seems just needlessly cruel.
The blue line figures to look the same as it did Wednesday night with both Hjalmarsson and Oduya being held out through the end of the weekend, and are scheduled to return together for reasons laid out yesterday. That leaves Quenneville with one real pairing and two third pairings to work with, so with last change tonight expect to see Keith and Seabrook out against Tavares for literally every shift.
Corey Crawford gets the start tonight, and Scott Darling won’t even dress tonight due to a mysterious late practice injury, so Jeff Glass will back up tonight, and potentially play tomorrow, which would be sub-optimal on the road against Nashville.
And that’s the likely gameplan for the forwards as well, particularly with more than a few missing bodies. Toews is likely to get Tavares at all junctures, and the remaining three lines will have to finish their chances when they get them. The Jackets did the Hawks a solid last night by shutting out the Wild, so the Hawks can put themselves in a potentially actionable position for next Sunday morning if they can keep this pace of play up. But with another game tomorrow night, if the Isles jump out tonight, the Hawks may just fold up and conserve their energy. It all depends on how much the Islanders have left in the tank after flooring it in the third period in Dallas last night. This one could get sloppy. Let’s go Hawks.