Monday, January 15, 2007

Islanders Blowing Golden Opportunity

They lost a tough one to the Lightning on home ice 4-3 before a near capacity crowd in a rare noon start on Martin Luther King Day. For Ted Nolan's Islanders, it was a missed opportunity against a club they've had little success against recently. The latest defeat dropped them to 0-2-1 this season with a final meeting set for March 20 in St. Petersburg.

Their last win against John Tortorella's club came almost three years ago via a 3-0 shutout at Nassau Coliseum back on March 21, 2004. A month later that same year, they were eliminated during the first round in five games by the eventual Stanley Cup winners.

"It was a tough loss," losing netminder Rick DiPietro told the AP after finishing with 20 saves to drop his club four points behind eighth in the East Tampa Bay and the seventh ranked Rangers. "That was a big two points we let get away."

Had they gotten them, they would've tied the Bolts in the standings and had a couple of games at hand in what continues to be a tight playoff race in the Eastern Conference. Seven total points separate the seventh seeded Rangers from 14th ranked Florida. So there isn't much margin for error in what should be an exciting race the final three months.

Truth be told, there isn't much difference between these clubs which is why when a potential four point swing game takes place, you must take advantage. But against a team they're battling, DiPietro's club wasn't disciplined enough in dropping their fourth straight at home. Ironically, their last victory there came against the archrival Rangers three weeks ago, a 2-0 blanking by the former 2000 first overall pick. If only they could play the Blueshirts more. They've dominated the series so far taking the first four with four crucial contests left.

"You have to expect a team like that to do well on the power play," the frustrated goalie pointed out after his team gave up two power play goals in five chances against. "We've got to stay out of the (penalty) box."

Instead, they once again allowed Islander killer Martin St. Louis to strike for his league-leading 29th goal. The former 2004 Hart recipient has made a living of destroying the Isles. His dominance began during that first round three years ago in which he torched them for four goals including the series clincher against DiPietro in overtime from a sharp angle. Since then, he's made life miserable for the Islanders by finding the back of the net six times in the last seven Lightning wins totaling nine points (6-3-9) including a goal and assist Monday.

The 31 year-old Vermont product helped put his club up 3-1 after two periods. After Viktor Kozlov cut it to one with a power play goal 1:10 into the final stanza, the Bolts' waterbug notched a helper on Vincent Lecavalier's eventual winner just over six minutes later to increase his point total to 62. It tied him with Caps' sniper Alexander Ovechkin for second, trailing just Sidney Crosby (21-45-66) for the Art Ross.

To their credit, the Isles didn't quit. Trailing by two, Trent Hunter scored his ninth of the season to cut it to one with 9:20 left. But in a period they controlled outshooting Tampa 16-5, they couldn't come up with the equalizer to at least get a point. With DiPietro pulled in the final minute-plus, Miroslav Satan came close but Johan Holmqvist held the post. The one-time Ranger stopped 33 Islander shots en route to his third consecutive victory over them. Maybe it's the logo.

Even though they probably deserved a better fate, the Isles were left with nothing and fell to just 2-7-1 in their last 10. Clearly not good enough if Nolan's team wants to make the postseason and silence many critics. Something they're capable of accomplishing. Most nights, the effort has been there. But it's all about getting more W's.

Right now, they're a mediocre 21-20-4 with 46 points, which puts them in a three-way tie for ninth in the East with Boston and Toronto. Both Pittsburgh and Washington are one point behind while Florida trails by three. There's plenty of time for the Islanders to separate themselves from the pack and challenge both the Rangers and Lightning for the final two spots.

They have 37 games remaining and will need to get back to the formula which worked over a month ago and had them challenging for the Atlantic lead. Now 12 points behind the red hot first place Devils, they've got a lot of work to do. The good news is that struggling team captain Alexei Yashin finally scored breaking a 12-game drought. Maybe it will get him going. Since returning from a knee sprain last month, he's only had points in seven of 15 games. That must change.

They'll also need lone All Star representative Jason Blake to start finishing again. The gritty 33 year-old Minnesota native is without a goal in his last six. He leads the club with 23 for the season including a team best 11 on the man-advantage. If Blake can rediscover his scoring touch, it should provide a lift.

In the mean time, Nolan's bunch will look to bounceback Tuesday night against one of those teams they're competing with in Pittsburgh before traveling to Philadelphia Thursday for the final game before the All Star break. The Pennsylvania trip is a chance to reestablish momentum in what's been a nice season.

It's time for their best players to step up.

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