Cross Checks: Michael Grabner
UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- What a fitting end to the Islanders' 2013 season, that they left the ice with the Nassau Coliseum crowd on its feet -- even after a heartbreaking 4-3 overtime loss to the Penguins in Game 6 -- saluting the team’s stellar effort in its first playoff appearance since 2007.
That should be the lasting image -- not Brooks Orpik’s game winner -- that each player conjures up when looking back on the team’s first-round series against the top-seeded Penguins.
The Islanders couldn’t match Pittsburgh’s depth or experience, but they had the grit, heart and desire in ample supply to push the Penguins in a six-game set.
For so many years, the Islanders have suffered the indignities of the down-trodden and the ridicule that comes with annual bottom-five finishes.
But that perception of the Islanders is bound to change after this.
"We’ve taken a lot of heat in the past three years since I’ve been here, a lot of criticism from the media, people looked at us as a laughingstock," said heart-and-soul grinder Matt Martin, who finished with a game-high 11 hits Saturday night. "Throughout this series, we showed we can play with anyone. We’re excited about the future. We think we have something special here."
The Penguins acknowledged that, too.
After wrapping up their fourth win of the series -- a game that required them to erase three separate one-goal Islanders leads before Orpik’s deciding goal 7:49 into overtime -- they had plenty of respect for the Islanders as they convened at center ice for the customary handshake line.
The Islanders received the requisite secondary scoring Saturday from the likes of McDonald and Michael Grabner to build off John Tavares’ wrist shot from the slot that gave the Isles a 1-0 lead 5:36 into play.
But the Pens showed resilience in a tough road test during which they were outshot 38-21 and superstar Sidney Crosby was held to one point. Each time the Isles gained momentum, the Penguins found a way to even the score. Less than six minutes from the Islanders forcing a winner-takes-all Game 7 in Pittsburgh, Pens defenseman Paul Martin unleashed a one-timer that deflected off Frans Nielsen to knot the score at 3 and send the game into overtime.
"I think we outshot them again today and created a lot of opportunities, but times that we could’ve gone up and taken a bigger lead, we just couldn’t do it," said Tavares, who on Friday was named one of three Hart Memorial Trophy finalists for the league’s annual MVP. "They stayed with it, and maybe that’s why they’re moving on."
"It was every bit of a battle in those six games," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said after his team punched its ticket to a second-round matchup against the seventh-seeded Ottawa Senators.
Special teams hurt the Islanders and veteran goaltender Evgeni Nabokov failed to steal a game, but the Penguins were the team to come up with the big plays when it counted.
For that reason, the Islanders will pack up for the offseason, with the hunger to win even more intense now that they know what it takes and how it’s done.
"It’s what I’ll be thinking about all summer," said Tavares, who finished the series with three goals and five points. "It’s what pushes you every day, and you finally get to experience it. We got here and we weren’t satisfied with getting here. I thought we competed real well, we played with them most of the series and dictated the play a lot of the series, too. They just took advantage of most of their opportunities."
The Penguins remained composed throughout the series, keeping doubt at bay even when the Islanders' Cinderella story seemed to be gaining traction. Bylsma made a bold but necessary goaltending change in replacing starter Marc-Andre Fleury with veteran backup Tomas Vokoun after a bafflingly bad performance in Game 4. That move paid dividends as the latter turned away 66 of 69 shots faced in his two starts to close out the series.
And in moving on, Pittsburgh managed to exorcise some demons from last spring’s implosion when the team was upset in the first round by the Philadelphia Flyers.
"I think we fought it a little bit, that history, and we fought it in different ways," Bylsma said. "But again, we had to be excited to win and not thinking about the past."
The Islanders don’t have that luxury, however. With their first taste of the playoffs also comes their first devastating sense of disappointment.
That won’t abate any time soon.
"Right now, it’s just tough, but in a couple of weeks when we look back at the season, I think we’ll realize we took a big step in the right direction," Nielsen said. "But, we’re definitely not satisfied with that. It’s still a long way to go. It’s not a success until we’ve got that Cup, but I think it’s a step in the right direction."
--It was an absolutely huge win for the Philadelphia Flyers Thursday night -- their first of the season -- as they edged the New York Rangers 2-1. The Flyers have been ravaged by injury and signed veteran Mike Knuble Thursday to plug a hole in their lineup, pending Knuble's passing a physical. But it was a gutsy effort from a team that needed to help stem some of the panic around Philly as they limited the Rangers to 19 shots on goal while Wayne Simmonds and Jakub Voracek scored their first goals of the season. Must admit it was a bit curious to see New York Ranger head coach John Tortorella go back to Henrik Lundqvist again in goal a night after a big win over Boston. Both teams are tied at the bottom of the Atlantic Division with 1-3-0 records.
--The Washington Capitals have taken over the "How deep is this hole I am digging for myself?" honors after being hammered at home 4-1 by the Montreal Canadiens. The Caps are 0-3-0 and have been outscored 14-6. Hard times for rookie head coach Adam Oates, who started Michal Neuvirth for the first time this season and got the same result. Another good night for the Habs’ Andrei Markov, who had a goal and an assist. P.K. who?
--After scoring just twice in their first two games, the Carolina Hurricanes took advantage of Buffalo backup Jhonas Enroth’s first start to break out offensively, beating the Sabres 6-3. The Sabres move to 2-1-0. Eric Staal scored the final three goals of the game for the goal-starved Canes, who moved to 1-2-0.
--Now that’s more like the Leafs that we know and love. After taking a 3-1 first-period lead, the Leafs allowed the New York Islanders to outscore them 6-1 the rest of the way en route to a 7-4 Islanders win. The collapse came at home, just 24 hours after the Leafs had manhandled the Penguins in Pittsburgh 5-2. The Isles moved to 2-1-0 on the season while the Leafs took a step back to 2-2-0. Michael Grabner and Matt Moulson each had a pair for the Isles.
--Those folks waiting for the Ottawa Senators to take a step back after their surprise run to the playoffs last season are waiting a while longer as they moved to 3-0-0 with their second win over the Florida Panthers. The Sens were again solid defensively in a 3-1 win and have allowed just two goals on the season. The Panthers, meanwhile, have dropped three straight and have managed just two goals in those three losses.
--The St. Louis Blues got back on the winning track with in typical style, this one by a 3-0 count over visiting Nashville. Jaroslav Halak stopped 13 Predators shots en route to the shutout and super rookie Vladimir Tarasenko notched his fourth goal of the season for the Blues, who moved to 3-1-0. The Preds, in the middle of a seven-game road trip, have managed just eight goals, which explains their 1-1-2 record.
--Without the injured Mike Smith, the Phoenix Coyotes let one get away in San Jose, blowing a 3-1 lead and losing 5-3 to the unbeaten Sharks. Patrick Marleau scored twice for the third straight game and leads the league with six goals. Linemate Joe Thornton leads all players with nine points as the Sharks have jumped out to a 3-0 start.
--The good news is that the Dallas Stars got top forward Jamie Benn under contract Thursday after the restricted free agent signed a five-year deal. The bad news is that the Stars blew a 2-0 lead in Chicago and lost 3-2 in overtime to the unbeaten Hawks. Patrick Sharp had three assists, including a helper on Marian Hossa’s overtime winner. It was Hossa’s fifth goal for the 4-0-0 Blackhawks. Kari Lehtonen was outstanding for the 2-1-1 Stars, stopping 38 of 41 shots.
--The Colorado Avalanche got another night of strong goaltending from Semyon Varlamov, who stopped all 33 Columbus shots he faced en route to a 4-0 victory. The win was the second in a row for the 2-1 Avs while the Blue Jackets, who looked good in games against Detroit and Nashville, have been outscored 9-1 in back-to-back losses to Phoenix and Colorado. Columbus is 1-2-1.
--After being shelled by San Jose in his previous start, Devan Dubnyk rallied mightily Thursday against the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings, stopping 30 of 31 shots as the Oilers edged the Kings 2-1 in overtime. Rookie Nail Yakupov tied the game in dramatic fashion with 4.7 seconds left in regulation, setting the stage for Sam Gagner’s overtime power-play winner. Rookie defenseman Justin Schultz had two assists for the Oilers to keep the 0-2-1 Kings winless. The Kings have scored four goals in three games.
For two weeks, we asked for your opinion on everything ranging from which team will win the Stanley Cup to where the next NHL franchise should go. Now, Scott Burnside weighs in with his thoughts on your votes.Sidney Crosby.
You'll see below that fans were a little more mixed in their thinking when it came to separating Crosby from longtime nemesis Alex Ovechkin for the coming season, but 46 percent of voters believe that Crosby will best Ovechkin as well as other former Art Ross winners Henrik and Daniel Sedin and Steven Stamkos to win his second scoring title. It's an interesting voting trend given that there remains so much uncertainty surrounding Crosby's health. And it was a bit shocking that the talented Sedin twins from Vancouver, the past two scoring champions, managed to garner just 7 percent of the votes combined. It is hard to bet against Crosby if he's healthy, but so much is unknown about his ability to return from a concussion that it wouldn't surprise us if we saw Ovechkin bounce back with a strong season to grab another Art Ross.
Tim Thomas in a landslide (69 percent) over fellow Vezina nominee and Stanley Cup finals foil Roberto Luongo. Maybe fans recall Luongo's erratic play in the finals and his strange comments about Thomas. Our question is whether Thomas can be as good as he was a year ago, when he ran away with the Vezina Trophy voting, then was the runaway winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
Fans were likewise united (67 percent) that of the two former Philadelphia stars dealt before the draft, former captain Mike Richards and sniper Jeff Carter, Richards who would have more success in his new home in Los Angeles. We agree.
One of our favorite polling matchups involved current and former Florida netminders Jose Theodore and Tomas Vokoun. Fans left no doubt that they felt Vokoun, now in Washington, would have the better season (82 percent to 18 percent for Theodore). We're not as sold on that proposition being a lock, but Vokoun will sure have a lot more offense going for him than he ever did in Florida. But we also think Theodore has a lot more game left than many give him credit for.
A couple of other players who swapped places, Martin Havlat and Dany Heatley, gave fans more pause. Voting sided with Heatley, now in Minnesota, by a 57-43 percent edge, but we're not so sure. If Havlat can stay healthy (we know, a big if), he'll have an opportunity to put up big numbers, say, 80 points or more. Heatley's numbers have been declining, and Minnesota isn't exactly an offensive juggernaut even with the arrival of the former 50-goal man and his former teammate Devin Setoguchi.
Finally, the age-old question of who will have a better year, Alex Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby, also had fans wondering, as Crosby edged Ovechkin with 53 percent of the vote. Still, the uncertainty over Crosby's health as he tries to recover from a concussion that cost him the last half of last season and a curiously down season for Ovechkin make this a toss-up.
Buffalo Sabres just ahead of the New York Rangers as the team they believe made the biggest strides in the offseason. (Twenty-nine percent picked the Sabres, and 22 percent selected the Rangers.) Both are worthy choices with the Sabres spending like crazy under new owner Terry Pegula. They added free agents Christian Ehrhoff and Ville Leino after acquiring Robyn Regehr and Brad Boyes, who came over at the trade deadline in March. And it's hard not to like the Rangers' chances of stepping up with the addition of top free-agent center Brad Richards.
But for us, the team that underwent the biggest makeover and took the biggest steps toward improvement is the Florida Panthers. Assuming good health, the Panthers will be looking to incorporate as many as a dozen new faces into their everyday lineup, including smooth-skating defenseman Brian Campbell, onetime Panthers hero Ed Jovanovski, former Hart and Vezina Trophy winner Jose Theodore in goal and a clutch of forwards with good scoring potential (Tomas Fleischmann, Kris Versteeg and Tampa's playoff scoring machine Sean Bergenheim). Throw in rookie head coach Kevin Dineen, and you've got a lot of moving parts to get in sync, but we like the Panthers to make it work and join the playoff crowd in the Eastern Conference.
Phoenix Coyotes are poised to take the biggest step backward this coming season. We tend to agree, although it's never wise to bet against one of the best coaches in the NHL. Former Jack Adams Trophy winner Dave Tippett is a crucial asset to the Coyotes. Still, Tippett will see his coaching acumen put to an extreme test this season, as the Coyotes remain mired in ownership limbo and, as a result, have struggled to keep core pieces of the team in the fold. Even though the Yotes qualified for the postseason for the second straight season this past spring, they never really filled the void created by the departure of defenseman Zbynek Michalek, who signed with Pittsburgh in July 2010. This summer saw the departure of veteran Ed Jovanovski and former Vezina Trophy nominee Ilya Bryzgalov. The team still looks to struggle offensively unless Mikkel Boedker and Kyle Turris really step forward.
Fans also seemed to think the New York Islanders would slide, but we disagree. With a healthy Mark Streit and Kyle Okposo ready from the get-go in training camp, we think the Isles are ready to jump back into playoff contention in the very tough Atlantic Division.
Given that, we're going to suggest that Kansas City will be the next stop for the NHL franchise carousel. Yes, only 8 percent of voters agree, but given there is an NHL-ready building simply awaiting a new owner, that might be the most logical of moves if the NHL gets pushed into the relocation corner again in the near future. Our second choice? Seattle. Yes, there are arena issues there, but having lost a big American market in Atlanta this past offseason, the NHL would rather see nothing other than a move to a big U.S. market, and Seattle has lots going for it.
Steve Mason of Columbus and Tyler Myers of Buffalo as recent examples.) Some of that is mental, expecting things to come easily. Some of that is opposing teams' knowing how to handle the youngsters. Voters feel that won't be a problem for the defending rookie of the year, Jeff Skinner, and Calder Trophy nominee Logan Couture, who led the polling with 26 percent of the votes apiece. Given that Couture is older (Skinner was the youngest player in the NHL last season), we're expecting he may have an easier time in his sophomore season. We also like another Calder nominee, Michael Grabner, to continue his ascension given that he will play under the radar on Long Island and the Isles should be an improved squad. As for Skinner, he is wise beyond his years, but it will be a tall order for him to repeat his success from last season.
Joel Ward, Jeff Halpern and Troy Brouwer up front while bringing in veteran Tomas Vokoun to backstop the Caps, we figure this team is finally ready to make a deep run into the postseason. Boudreau showed his coaching chops last season, arresting what could have been a disastrous midseason slide and taking a much better defensive squad to the top of the Southeast Division standings.
In our mind, other coaches will find themselves in much more precarious positions this season, and you can start with Ron Wilson in Toronto. The Leafs have failed to make the postseason tournament since the lockout, and perhaps more telling is that the team has failed to make strides in the crucial special-teams area. Only so much of those shortcomings can be attributed to personnel. At some point, the coach has to take the fall for not coming up with the proper systems for success on the power play and penalty kill. A slow start in Toronto will almost certainly spell the end for Wilson. Another coach to keep an eye on is Terry Murray in Los Angeles, where the stakes are high for a young Kings team that needs to step forward.
Evgeni Malkin is champing at the bit after knee surgery and James Neal will be fully integrated into the Pens' lineup. If Steve Sullivan can stay healthy, the Pens should return to being one of the most deadly offensive teams in the NHL, which will balance nicely with the defensive mindset that Bylsma has imposed in Pittsburgh, making them one of the most difficult to play (and score) against in the league. For the record, though, if we had to go to a Plan B, we'd go with Boudreau.
But a career isn't made with one good season. Can the stars of the 2010-11 rookie class follow up their first NHL season with another successful bid? Or will they fall prey to the sophomore slump?
You make the call ...
At 19 years old, Jeff Skinner won the Calder Trophy, but will he follow that up with another successful season?
LAS VEGAS -- Is this the year someone breaks Pavel Datsyuk's death grip on the Frank J. Selke Trophy? The top Detroit center, long considered the best two-way forward in the game, has won the award the past three years and is again nominated.
The argument against Datsyuk is he was injured and played only 56 games, but he could become the first player to win the award four straight times since Bob Gainey (1978-81).
Look for Kesler, a finalist the past three years, to finally pry the hardware away from Datsyuk.
Kesler was a key component of a Vancouver Canucks team that was the best defensive squad in the NHL. He blocked more shots than any other NHL forward and took key faceoffs and delivered 124 hits. Kesler was just 33 points behind Datsyuk in last season's voting.
This is the first Selke nomination for Toews. The Blackhawks captain acknowledged he would like to best Kesler, who he has battled against in three straight postseasons now.
"I think at the end of the day, whatever happens tomorrow, if Ryan walks away with the trophy, you got to respect him for that," Toews said. "He's earned his right to be there with the season he's had this year. He's a big part of that team that went to the final. But again, you always want to just give yourself credit and kind of appreciate the moment, knowing what it takes to get here.
"Sometimes outsiders, the media, the people watching, always kind of measure what you do in a series based on goals and assists, shots on net, all those types of stats," he added. "But half the time, basically, what it comes down to is what you're doing against the player you're matched up against every shift."
The MVP race, times two
It is always interesting to see how the Hart Trophy voting (conducted by the Professional Hockey Writers' Association) varies from the players' MVP voting reflected in the Ted Lindsay Award.
Daniel's prime challenge for the Hart looks to come from Perry, who surged through the last third of the regular season to win the Rocket Richard Trophy for most goals (50). The Anaheim sniper scored 19 times in his final 16 games to help the Ducks qualify for the playoffs after a dreadful start to the regular season.
"I think it was one of those things where you get on a roll and things just go your way," Perry said of his torrid finish. "You can't go out and plan on doing that. You just go out and do your thing, and it was a quite a good roll that happened in the last month and a half. It was fun."
The same player has won both the Hart and Lindsay five times in the past 10 years.
Can't escape Jagr talk in Vegas
Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma is the favorite to win the Jack Adams Award given his stellar work in guiding the Penguins to the playoffs despite the long-term absences of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
He is chomping at the bit to get a healthy lineup back in the fold next season and take another run at a Stanley Cup. One piece he may have in his puzzle is five-time scoring champ Jaromir Jagr, who has targeted a small number of teams for a potential return to the NHL after spending time in the Kontinental Hockey League.
Pittsburgh, Detroit and another team appear to be interested in the Czech star's services.
"Hypothetically, you're talking about a guy who in his last year in the National Hockey League had 75 points, that's leading our team last year," Bylsma said. "That's an intriguing thing to think about -- a power-play guy, what you saw him do in the World Championship against NHL-caliber players was nothing short of outstanding.
"Those are intriguing things to think about hypothetically and it's tough not to think about adding 75 points to your roster if that's something you're capable of doing," he said.
There are reports Detroit coach Mike Babcock has spoken to Jagr. Has Bylsma?
"I've talked to Mike, not to Jaromir," Bylsma said with a laugh.
Regardless of how Daniel and Henrik Sedin finished out the playoffs (they were a combined minus-20 in the postseason for Vancouver), they remain two of the league's stand-up guys, accepting much of the blame for the team's disappointing turn in the Cup finals against Boston.
In Vegas, the twin brothers can make history if Daniel follows in Henrik's footsteps and wins the Hart Trophy as regular season MVP. He already matched his brother's scoring title from last season by leading all NHLers with 104 points this season. No brothers have ever each won the Hart, let alone in back-to-back years.
Daniel wasn't on hand last year for his brother's big moment in the Vegas sun, and Henrik was nowhere to be seen Tuesday (he was vacationing in Whistler, B.C.)
One of the great stories of the awards is the emergence of Calder Trophy candidate Michael Grabner of the New York Islanders. The 23-year-old was waived by the Florida Panthers on the eve of the regular season and claimed by the Islanders. Grabner went on to lead the Islanders and all rookies with 34 goals. He also had his first child this season.
Although he doesn't have the profile of his fellow nominees, Logan Couture of San Jose and Jeff Skinner from Carolina, Grabner's story is nonetheless compelling. He signed a contract extension during the past season and is part of a dynamic young Islanders team that has people thinking playoffs in 2011-12.
As far as the Calder race goes, if Skinner earns the hardware, he would become the youngest player to win it at age 19. Dale Hawerchuk and Bobby Orr were both 19 years, two months old when they were awarded the Calder in 1982 and 1967, respectively.
"It's been fun," Skinner said. "Just going through everything as a kid, just last year looking up to them and watching them on TV and the next year your sort of around them and talk to them. I think that's really cool to meet some of the guys you grew up idolizing and sort of talk to them as normal guys."
No Sid, no Ovi
These awards mark the first time since the lockout that neither Sidney Crosby nor Ovechkin have been in attendance.
The pair was nominated for rookie of the year in 2006. Since then, at least one of them has been nominated and/or won the Hart Trophy and/or the Ted Lindsay Award.
As the NHL unveils the awards finalists this week, we will look back at our experts' picks for each award.
Today, it's the Calder Trophy finalists for rookie of the year. San Jose's Logan Couture, Carolina's Jeff Skinner and the New York Islanders' Michael Grabner are the finalists. Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun made their picks:
Burnside: Although Logan Couture may end the season behind Carolina's Jeff Skinner in points and may get edged by the Isles' terrific first-year sniper Michael Grabner in goals, our vote goes to the young San Jose center. When the Sharks were floundering earlier this season, it was Couture who provided clutch performances in spite of his youthfulness. Whatever coach Todd McLellan has asked, Couture has delivered.
LeBrun: A sizable and impressive group of 2010-11 rookies, which included Couture, Skinner, Corey Crawford, P.K. Subban, John Carlson, Cam Fowler, Grabner, Tyler Ennis, Sergei Bobrovsky, Michal Neuvirth and James Reimer. I think Subban's 14 goals deserve more attention, but this will end up being a 1-2 battle between Skinner and Couture when the Professional Hockey Writers' Association votes come in. It's totally a toss-up and both kids deserve the award, but I'll go with the player who added defensive responsibilities to his game on top of the offense he provided.