Thirty-three games. That's all that's left in the New York Islanders regular season. So when All-Star Weekend commenced, it was time for the Islanders to get back to business.
“This is a great opportunity for myself and our coaching staff,” Islanders interim head coach Jack Capuano said. “We have 33 games left to see what we can do here to motivate guys and how we play. For the players, there are a lot of teams that are watching and our management is watching. There are a lot of people watching our guys. So it’s a very important stretch for everyone in these last 33 games.”
Islanders forward John Tavares knows the break came just as a crucial time in the season hit.
“Today it didn’t feel too good,” Tavares said about the tough practice Monday afternoon. “But other than that, I’ve been playing a lot of minutes so it’s good to get the rest, mentally as well, just to refresh and get ready for the home stretch.”
Monday’s practice was the team’s first at Iceworks in Syosset in over two months, and was their first after a four-day hiatus due to the All-Star Break. Post-practice, the team caught a flight from Farmingdale to Atlanta, where they will face off against the Thrashers on Tuesday night for the first half of their back-to-back road games.
In recent weeks, having a good start has been problematic for the Islanders, who have only scored the first goal in one of their last 12 games. But hopefully the time off has given the players a little time to think about their off starts.
“I just want to get back to playing within the team concept,” Capuano said. “I think we’re a good team when we play structured hockey. It gives ourselves a chance to win a hockey game, but at the same time, I think we went through that stretch were we didn’t play a full 60 minutes. I think the team right now, if we can control our work ethic, that’s the one thing I want to see down the stretch.”
The Thrashers, ranked eighth in the Eastern Conference, will be tough competition for the Islanders, who have 20 fewer points in the standings. While the rankings speak volumes, previous contests between the clubs are also important. Tuesday’s matchup will be the third of four meetings between the clubs. Back in November, the Islanders were defeated 2-1 in overtime. Then in December, a high scoring game resulted in a 5-4 win for the Thrashers.
“They’re a team that has improved a lot from last year,” Tavares said. “They compete really hard. They really rely on their back end. Their forwards play tough. They’re a good team defensively and they have a lot of skill so we have to make sure that we’re playing a smart game and keep our shifts short and do the right things. We need to get pucks to the net, finish our checks and limiting their players time and space.”
Tavares isn’t the only one who has taken notice of the Thrashers defensive game. When most teams have forwards leading the points category, Thrashers defensemen Dustin Byfuglien and Tobias Enstrom both have 41 points and lead all Thrashers in scoring. They are also tied for fourth in the league among defensive scoring leaders.
“Atlanta is a defensive-minded team,” Capuano said. “The neutral zone will be a key for us in that game. But at this point, I’m not really as worried about the other team as much as I’m worried about us,” Capuano said. “We know what other teams do, but right now the one thing we’ll focus on is special teams.”
Special teams will definitely be a big part of the game. While Atlanta has 20.4 percent accuracy on the power play, they have the second-worst success rate on the penalty kill with 76.0 percent and the worst on the road with 69.3 percent. That can be extremely good for the Islanders, who have had luck on the power play in the last few weeks and an 82.5 percent penalty kill percentage.
While Grabner has been on fire, Islanders forward Matt Moulson has also been playing exceptionally well and with his new contract, he’ll surely be playing with a newfound confidence on Tuesday night.
“I don’t think he was himself the last six periods that I watched on video,” Capuano said. “Obviously (the contract) was in the back of his mind, but it’s done now and he can move forward.”