There is no easy answer or formula for how a hockey team can start a game. Players and coaches may have generated positive energy in a morning skate or pregame warmup, but the same philosophy doesn’t always translate to the game itself. The New York Islanders spent much of the regular season searching for the proper rhythm to open games and have endured mixed results, as demonstrated in Tuesday’s 4-1 loss to the Florida Panthers.
Defense and discipline are the universal ideals for teams to identify when attempting to achieve consistent performances. The Panthers emphasized curtailing one of the league’s top offenses by putting defenders in the slot and screening the front of the net. Seldom were the Islanders in a position to convert a scoring opportunity, forcing themselves to settle for low percentage chances. Ten Panthers skaters blocked a shot in the first period to set the tone for the remainder of the game.
“There’s no explanation. We got outworked,” Islanders’ head coach Doug Weight said. “As a player, you have to be ready to start the game and play with reckless abandon with 30 games left (in the regular season). There’s no need to explain it and no need to beg for it. If you make mistakes, they should be hard mistakes. We have to get them going.”
Strengthened by their tight play on the blue line, the Panthers turned their stout play into offensive production. Nine minutes into the first period, Mike Matheson fired a one-timer below the top crossbar to give the Panthers a one-goal advantage. Evgenii Dadonov doubled the lead in the second period, circling past Scott Mayfield and converted on a wraparound attempt. At the end of two periods, it became apparent that the Panthers dictated the pace of play and put the Islanders in a precarious position.
“We just weren’t executing that well or as quick to the puck as we needed to be,” captain John Tavares said. “For whatever reason, we did not have our best. Obviously, we have to be a lot better, and we don’t want to come out and play flat. This wasn’t good enough. We’re prepared, but for whatever reason, we’re not executing.”
When a team finds themselves trailing by a wide margin, they begin playing with a sense of urgency, realizing that time is of the essence. The Islanders displayed the ability to overcome early missteps in the past and sought to change their fortunes in that fashion after Adam Pelech scored his second goal of the season less than a minute after former Ranger Keith Yandle put the Isles in a three-goal deficit. A subsequent tripping penalty to MacKenzie Weegar yielded a power play to the Islanders, but no further goals.
Before the All-Star break, the Panthers learned they would not have the services of goaltender James Reimer after he pulled a groin in a recent game against the Dallas Stars. Reimer ascended to the starter’s role after Roberto Luongo landed on injured reserve in December. With their top two goaltenders on the shelf, the Panthers turned to the unproven Harri Sateri, who earned his first NHL win with 32 saves, stopping 16 in the third period.
“To play NHL hockey and get my first win is a feeling I can’t describe,” Sateri said. “It was a great 60 minutes. We outworked them and outplayed them, and the defense was great. It was a relaxed feeling that I got my first win and a dream come true.”
As the Islanders open the second half the season, their ability to adjust when trailing may determine where they finish in the final standings. The Isles hold an 8-18-5 record when their opponent scores first and recorded just three wins when behind after two periods. These factors put the Isles in a spot where their offense takes precedence led by their top six forwards. The Islanders found unbridled success in those situations to open the year, but need to devise other methods to win games as the season progresses.
“We need some guys that know how to play this time of year and make simple decisions,” Weight said. “They need to be hard on the walls, hard to play against and get to the front of the net. We’re just inconsistent in that regard.”