The tension grows. The decibel level increases from the fans while the players and coaches seek answers for another less than optimal performance. This is the plight the New York Islanders endure during their roughest stretch of the season. The team expected more on Tuesday in a pivotal matchup against the Columbus Blue Jackets, but could not gain any traction in a 4-1 defeat.
“We are trying to establish our game and gain some momentum, and obviously build on it, but it’s really been up and down (of late),” Isles’ captain John Tavares said. “All you can do is move onto the next day and just try to find a way to get better. It’s obviously frustrating, and there’s not a whole lot of time. It’s only up to us to find a way to break through and play the hockey we need to play to get the results we need.”
On the heels of a 50 shot performance against the New Jersey Devils on Saturday, the Blue Jackets sought to exploit the Islanders’ defense with an endless barrage of shots at the net from every conceivable angle. Although the scoreboard was not indicative of their effort, the Jackets slowly wore down the Isles and incurred a total of 26 shots on goal by the end of the first period. Goaltender Jaroslav Halak kept the Islanders afloat, stopping each attempt despite growing pressure.
“I think what happens is that teams see you giving up a lot of shots and they just tell you to keep peppering and shoot, shoot, shoot,” head coach Doug Weight said. “The guys see it and kind of wears on you. Everybody watches the clock now, and they take shots from everywhere. It doesn’t matter about the shot total. We just didn’t have our game. Not to say that we didn’t try, but we were just flat.”
The Islanders received a glimmer of hope when Tavares became the sixth player in franchise history to record 600 career points on a goal late in the first period. But the tide would shift for the Blue Jackets in the second period on an Oliver Bjorkstrand power-play goal. Defenseman Zach Werenski found an open Bjorkstrand from the point for the first of three assists. He also provided another helper in the latter stages of the period with Pierre-Luc Dubois banking a goal off the post.
“I think we have to do a better job of bringing the puck out and do a better job getting our sticks on and creating turnovers ourselves,” Cal Clutterbuck said. “They (the Blue Jackets) shot the puck a lot on the power play and in five-on-five. At the end of the day, it was a 1-1 hockey game with a couple of minutes left in the second period. They scored on the power play and a couple of broken plays in the third period.”
Must of the Jackets’ success came from placing bodies in front of the net and using their speed to maneuver through the offensive zone. Robust play along the side boards created matchup problems and increased puck possession. Ex-Ranger Brandon Dubinsky found an opening in the third period and added a goal on a wraparound attempt. Cam Atkinson scored 43 seconds later, and the Blue Jackets amassed a combined ten goals and 101 shots over the last two games.
Following Atkinson’s goal, the Islanders fans boisterously expressed their dismay, chanting “Snow Must Go” on four separate occasions, in reference to longtime general manager Garth Snow. With just five points in their last seven games, the Islanders are a far cry from the team that dominated the Eastern Conference during the first two months of the season, and the players understand the need to improve their overall play, while attempting to remain in the playoff hunt.
“We have to find some kind of spark, some kind of life, some kind of energy. It’s got to change,” Anders Lee said. “It’s been more of the same. It’s disappointing. I mean we have our meetings, we have our focuses, and are dialled in before the game starts, but we are coming into the postgame with another script of the same thing.”
“We need to work hard, play for 60 minutes, and throw pucks at the net,” Halak said. “If you do that, you get rewarded. It’s a tough loss. These games are very important for our team, every point counts, and it can make a difference at the end of the season. We just need to regroup again. It all comes down to execution, effort and playing with heart.”