Game Time: 6:30PM CST
TV/Radio: CSN, NHLN, WGN-AM 720
Drones Over BKLYN: Lighthouse Hockey
The Hawks may have believed that Wednesday night was ripping the band aid on their horrendous offseason, but the true test of mettle begins tonight. This will be the first time Garbage Dick will have to face not only an audience who isn’t outwardly and wrongly sympathetic to his “plight”, but one that could very well be baying for blood every time he’s on the ice. There will be no banner ceremonies and coddling emcees to hide behind.
Add to the mix tonight being the home opener in a new building for a team with expectations of its own, in a city not exactly known for being subtle, and things could go sideways in a hurry.
That opponent tonight is the Islanders, who are playing their first regular season game in the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn, where a hockey rink got put into a basketball building about as elegantly as getting a golden retriever into a bathtub. The jumbotron is off center, their are seats impossibly oriented away from the ice in certain sections, and it’s unclear yet whether the Nassau County die hards will make the trip into the city or if it will be an apathetic scenester crowd from Williamsburg staring at their shoes like it was a secret Interpol show at the Bowery. But even still it’s a likely upgrade from the Coliseum (sky point), where there was literally shit being upchucked from the toilets into the locker rooms in recent years.
Of course that’s all window dressing for the product on the ice, which boasts one of the most fun groups of forwards in the East or in the league period. John Tavares is entering his prime where he is now flatly expected to be in the conversation for the Hart Trophy annually, and is coming off a season where he was one point off at 86 points a share of the Art Ross with Jamie Benn, and carried a 54.8% share of attempts at evens while facing the toughest the opposition has to offer nightly. Quite simply, he is the truth, and has an incredibly team friendly contract at a mere $5.5 per for this year and two more after.
Tavares is surrounded by a good mix of size, speed, youth and veteran savvy with the likes of power forward Kyle Okposo and now Anders Lee, who had a breakout year with 27 goals in ’14-15. Maple Leaf reject possession drivers Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolay Kulemin produced a grand total 24 goals combined last year, with Grabovski not even cracking 20 points at 9 goals and 10 assists in 51 games. Even if Lee and Ryan Strome continue their trajectories, Cap’n Jack and his hair will need more from these two if he’s going to keep his job. Frans Nielsen tends to take the toughest defensive assignments and consistently plays them even or better in possession, he’s as under-appreciated a defensive center as there is in the league.
On the blue line the GM Garth Snow gave the Isles a significant bump last year in acquiring Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy (sky point) on the eve of the regular season, and the dividends it paid were immediate, and it solidified the Islanders’ second pairing. Leddy was at or near the top of the league leaderboard in controlling the play all season long, keeping company with Duncan Keith and another alleged sexual assault perpetrator in Drew Doughty. Obviously Leddy’s speed through the neutral zone and offensive prowess are well known in these parts, and he parlayed it into a very lucrative long term deal which kicks in this year. But he still can be a bit of an adventure in his own end, fortunately he doesn’t spend that much time there. The same cannot be said for “newcomer” Marek Zidlicky, who is an absolute calamity anywhere but teeing up his massive righthanded shot. Look for Capuano to give Zidlicky as few defensive zone draws as he can manage, and for Travis Hamonic, another unheralded defensive stalwart locked up for the next zillion years for nothing, to be in Jonathan Toews’ earhole all night.
Naturally, Jaroslav Halak is hurt already to start the Islanders’ season, so longtime Sharks backup Thomas Greiss will get the nod in the crease tonight, with the recently waiver-claimed J.F. Berube backing up and possibly starting tomorrow. Greiss has a totally respectable .913 career save percentage in 89 appearances, and the general consensus has been for the last three years that if the Islanders can just get average to slightly above goaltending they’d make a deep run. But many teams have been caught waiting for Jaro Halak to stay in one piece, the Islanders are simply the most recent.
As for the Men of Four Feathers, while the first period of Wednesday was sloppy to say the least, they made a game out of it in the final forty and damn near tied it with a minute to go while dominating the possession throughout, even taking score effects into consideration. It’s going to need to be reiterated many times over, but as long as there are no obvious turds on the roster as there have been in past years, it’s certainly alright for Quenneville to try things out with any number of combinations up and down the lineup. This is especially true while Michal Rozsival is still hurt, as once he’s ready to go he’s not sitting down until his other ankle gets turned 180 degrees in the wrong direction, that much is certain.
What else is certain is that the pairing of Trevor & Trevor is an even worse show than Simon & Simon, and Gerald McRaney can in all likelihood hold the defensive blue line even at his advanced age better than either Daley or TVR. Tonight should be extra fun with the speed and versatility the Islanders boast, and if Cap’n Jack has a brain under that gorgeous head of hair, he’ll do everything he can to get Tavares out against them. Viktor Svedberg has been recalled in favor of Ville Pokka, but it’s unclear on if he’ll play tonight in favor of David Rundblad, where apparently death is not an option in choosing between those two.
Among the forwards it appears that the apple of the Fifth Feather’s eye Viktor Tikhonov will dress in favor of Kyle Baun tonight, who offered nothing on Wednesday while the entire bottom six, especially the third line with Shaw and Bickell, looked completely out of sorts. Corey Crawford gets the nod tonight on the road, which undoubtedly means that LOCAL GUY Scott Darling will go tomorrow at home.
Tonight and tomorrow should be quite entertaining if nothing else.Both of these teams like to get up and down, and both were near the top in the league in their share of possession last year. There’s star power and major market appeal here, along with aesthetically pleasing uniforms. so for those who are looking to turn their brains off about all the unpleasantness, this weekend has got all that covered. But in that case it’s advisable to watch tonight’s game muted, as a Brooklyn crowd will not be as accommodating as those in South Bend or on West Madison. They’re not booing because they’re jealous, they’re booing because they’re angry.