Saturday, 11 May 2013

That Was Fun, No?

Rarely do we see playoff series where you're actually rooting for the next season to start for the losers so quickly. Brooks Orpik's overtime goal to end the series between the Penguins and Islanders kind of left me with an empty feeling because I actually enjoyed this series for its quick transitions, massive swings in momentum, and all-out offence shown by both teams. In the end, the Islanders will be going home, but you secretly wished this was a best-of-fifteen or so just to witness some more fantastic end-to-end action from both teams. Through it all, though, the Islanders are showing that they are on the verge of becoming a power in the NHL once more.

You look down the Islanders' lineup and you see a lot of promise with the likes of Granber, Okposo, Moulson, Tavares, Cizikas, Bailey, and Hamonic, but there were key contributions from veterans as well. Evgeni Nabokov showed some incredible play through the regular season and the playoffs, Mark Streit was invaluable over the season once more, Keith Aucoin was poised and professional all season, and Lubomir Visnovsky showed the world that the Islanders knew more than they let on when they traded for him. In short, there are still a few holes to be filled on the roster, but the Islanders have built themselves a very dangerous team that has now experienced the playoffs in living color.

Honestly, everyone knows that John Tavares is a great player, but he really showed his intelligence and skill in this series against the Penguins. This kid is going to be a fixture on the Islanders - and Team Canada when available - for a long, long time. I can't say enough good things about how he plays this game, and he really reminds me of a young Steve Yzerman in terms of how he can simply impose his will on a game when given the opportunity. He's not quite at the level where he can physically take over a game from start to finish, but he does have the ability to put the Islanders on his shoulders and take over for a period or so. He's scary-good, and he may become an even bigger star once the Islanders move to Brooklyn.

If there's one phrase that can describe Michael Grabner, it would be "speed demon". I had the pleasure of watching play for the Manitoba Moose, and it was clear that Grabner was going to be a difference-maker for a team if and when he was given the chance. While he was never properly used in Vancouver and written off way too early by the Florida Panthers, the New York Islanders gave him a chance and he exploded for 34 goals. It seemed he was everywhere on the ice in the Penguins-Islanders series, and he was constantly a disruption to the Penguins defenders with his speed and dogged determination in getting the puck. Grabner's the kind of player every coach loves to have on the bench.

While they had disappointing regular seasons, Josh Bailey and Kyle Okposo really emerged in this series. Bailey was a solid two-way performer, playing strong particularly in his own zone. He set up a couple of nice goals, and was inches away from having a couple of deflections become goals. The thing for me was that Bailey looked like Jordan Staal when the Penguins won the Stanley Cup: strong, poised, confident, responsible. A coach can't ask for much more than that.

Okposo became the power forward that the Islanders have been needing for a while. He was physical, he scored goals, he caused disruptions, and he was in the middle of many scrums. In short, he was the second coming of Clark Gillies in some fans' eyes. Okposo really showed some excellent skill in his emergence in the postseason, but there's no denying that his physicality caused a lot of the Penguins to let up as they heard the footsteps coming. That intangible can't be quantified when looking at Okposo's stats, but his three goals tied his with Tavares for the team lead - an easily-quantifiable statistic in terms of his importance to the Islanders.

The last guy I was really impressed with Travis Hamonic. Hamonic's development has taken a little longer than perhaps the Islanders would have liked, but the results are turning into excellence. Hamonic routinely played against the Malkin line, and frequently was seen shutting Malkin down at every turn. Hamonic was excellent against Malkin in limiting his scoring chances to a mere two goals. Perhaps where that didn't show up, though, was due to the fact that Malkin set up nine other goals. That being said, the physical price that Malkin paid every time he was up against Hamonic had to affect the big Russian's play, and Hamonic looks like he's going to be a physical force for many years to come.

As a Penguins fan, I'm not complaining about the outcome of this series. I have, however, maintained that the Islanders play an exciting, up-tempo brand of hockey that really should be seen by more people. They forecheck like demons, they hustle and hit all over the ice, and they score some timely goals off turnovers they create. While I'm happy that Pittsburgh advanced, I actually am a little sad that the Islanders won't be playing hockey any longer this season.

They may not have gone as far as they liked in terms of advancing in the playoffs, but they came out of the six-game series a lot further ahead that where they were at this point last season. The New York Islanders appear to be a playoff fixture for a long time if they continue to develop as well as they have. And they'll be led by a lot of good young players.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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