Commentary

Islanders' dark season getting darker

Few glimmers of hope in what was supposed to be a big year

Updated: December 11, 2013, 4:06 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

SAN JOSE -- Throw a stone into a well.

Wait for the telltale "plink" that marks the stone hitting the surface, the bottom.

But what if there is no plink?

What if the stone just keeps sinking?

Now you know how the New York Islanders have been feeling. Tuesday night in San Jose, though, the Islanders finally heard the plink. After going 10 games without a win (0-8-2), the Islanders finally earned a victory in the most unlikely fashion, defeating the San Jose Sharks on the road, 3-2 in a shootout after falling behind 2-0.

If each of the previous 10 games was marked by some unique, crippling blow, Tuesday's win was likewise mystifying. One night earlier in Anaheim, the Isles played well for most of two periods and were tied 2-2. But in the final 33 seconds of the second period, they somehow gave up a short-handed goal, then a highlight-reel goal by Corey Perry from one knee with 1.7 seconds left en route to a 5-2 loss.

For most of the first half of Tuesday's game, the Isles' strategy seemed to be to allow the Sharks to tire themselves out, flinging pucks at netminder Kevin Poulin, who was under siege from the outset. The Sharks outshot the Islanders 29-14 through the first two periods. But the Islanders hung around, Poulin was sensational and in the end Kyle Okposo and Thomas Vanek, who also scored in regulation, chipped in shootout goals for the win. So instead of answering another series of questions about the team's ineptitude, there were high-fives among teammates and music playing as the bags were packed for the final stop on what has been a road trip from hell.

"It's not about the coaches," head coach Jack Capuano told reporters after the Islanders collected their first win since Nov. 16. "We've had some games in this stretch where we've worked extremely hard and the guys deserved better. And we just didn't get it done. But that's what it's all about: It's about the camaraderie and it's about them staying together and working hard. That's what this game's about, and enjoying it. I'm extremely pleased that they got that feeling tonight because they stayed with it."

Vanek said: "It's not the type of game we envisioned, but that's a really good team over there. With that said, of the 10 we lost, there's some of them I thought we played probably well enough to win and we didn't. So sometimes it goes the other way. Hopefully, we can continue it now."

Of course the night's work, as promising and as unexpected as it was, must be viewed with some perspective. As captain John Tavares noted, the team is still coming off a 10-game winless streak.

"We're still out of the mix here," Tavares said. "We have a lot of ground to make up. It's a good feeling, breeds some confidence and [we'll] enjoy it, but at the same time there can't be any let up from our game and the way we need to play."

When a team goes as solidly off the rails as the Islanders have been for most of the season -- they have managed to win back-to-back games just once -- it gives rise to pastimes like speculation on how many grains of sand remain in Capuano's coaching hourglass. And, to be sure, Capuano is an obvious target. When a team takes this significant step backward, the coaching staff has to bear some of the burden of blame. But is it Capuano's fault the team has little in the way of depth scoring? Is it his fault that players like Josh Bailey or Michael Grabner have failed to develop? Or that a young player like Nino Niederreiter couldn't make it work with the Islanders but is thriving in Minnesota?

[+] EnlargeJack Capuano
Graig Abel/NHLI/Getty ImagesJack Capuano is feeling the heat behind the bench this season.
"It's all mindset. ... [O]ur players talked about it, we're not going to beat 'em down," Capuano said before Tuesday's game. "For the most part, and as crazy as it sounds, we've had some decent games along the way. The Washington game short-handed, last night short-handed again, late in the period, it's just certain areas of our game that are hurting us right now. The fact that we're not getting too much secondary scoring obviously has an effect when you put 35, 37 shots up on net. We know what we have to do; we just got to continue to try and work out of it."

Through the 10-game slide, the Isles managed just 16 goals and were a woeful 3-for-31 on the power play while allowing opponents 10 power-play goals. (On Tuesday, they were 0-for-1 on the power play while the Sharks were 1-for-4.)

"They've got to stay with it; they've got to stay the course," Capuano said. "Doubt starts to creep in and that's a huge, huge thing, and it's a big energy-taker. You've got to continue to believe."

Maybe it's true, and kudos to Capuano for continuing to talk the talk, even if his team has failed to walk for much of this season and even if he is, in fact, a dead coach walking. But if anyone thinks that simply installing another body behind the bench -- the prevailing thought is that veteran NHLer Doug Weight, who currently holds the multiple-position portfolio of assistant coach and senior adviser to GM Garth Snow -- is going to have some magical impact on the team's performance.

Even Tuesday, the Sharks were so significantly the better team for long stretches that it raises the questions: Was the Islanders' inspired run to the playoffs last season the aberration, the exception, and not the start of something meaningful for the beleaguered franchise? Or is it the team's uneven play this season the exception to the rule? Maybe the expectations after last spring's playoff series against Pittsburgh -- in which the Islanders gave as good as they got, succumbing only after a Brooks Orpik overtime goal in Game 6 -- were completely out of whack.

Remember when the storyline went something like this: The Isles are a team on the rise, they're going to move to Brooklyn in 2015 and become a destination market. The obvious deficiencies in goal (notwithstanding Kevin Poulin's 46-save effort Tuesday) and along the blue line were not addressed in the offseason by Snow. Poulin entered play Tuesday with an .888 save percentage and 3.15 goals-against average. And even when he's been healthy, veteran netminder Evgeni Nabokov has been ordinary, with a 3.30 GAA and .892 save percentage.

Instead of shoring up those areas, Snow instead dealt Niederreiter, a former fifth overall pick, to Minnesota for Cal Clutterbuck, then he acquired Vanek from Buffalo early in the season but gave up a first-round pick, a second-round pick and proven goal scorer Matt Moulson. Vanek, set to become a free agent next summer, has battled injury since coming over, and Snow is now faced with the unappealing prospect of having to trade Vanek before the deadline in order to at least recoup some of the assets given up in the original deal -- unless the team can effect some miraculous turnaround in the final two-thirds of the season.

Former NHL netminder and current TV analyst Glenn Healy, who played on Long Island, questioned the failure to address the goaltending situation in the offseason. Instead of the package delivered to Buffalo for Vanek, Healy said, the Islanders could have obtained Cory Schneider from Vancouver, likely for a first- and second-round draft pick. (Schneider was obtained by the Devils for the ninth overall pick in June's draft.) As for job security for either Snow or Capuano, Healy asked rhetorically what happened to the only team below the Islanders in the standings -- the Buffalo Sabres. The answer is they cleaned house, firing coach Lindy Ruff last season and GM Darcy Regier this season.

"I think if Jack or Garth think that they're safe, I think they're probably misguided," Healy told ESPN.com.

Healy said he felt that two years ago the Islanders were set with a strong contingent of forwards and needed merely to fill in the lineup. Now they have slid and, with a move to Brooklyn set for the fall of 2015, Healy wonders how the team will market itself to a new fan base.

[+] EnlargeJohn Tavares
Don Smith/Getty ImagesBeing the talented John Tavares in the sideshow that is the Islanders can't be easy.

Those kinds of deals, or non-deals, would usually get a GM fired. But this is Long Island. And given the curious manner in which Snow became GM to begin with -- taking over for Neil Smith after Smith had been on the job about an hour (OK, a month and a half) back in 2006 -- anyone waiting for owner Charles Wang to fire Snow had better not be holding his or her breath. But that doesn't make it right, and even if Capuano does walk the plank when this dark well of a road trip ends after Thursday's visit to Phoenix, it will not change the basic fact that whatever gains were made last season have been buried under a mountain of losses and that the blame must be shouldered from ownership on down.

Tavares talked about the disappointment of having worked so hard to establish a meaningful identity last season, only to see things go horribly awry this season.

"They're in that group of teams that are going to have a hard time in this economic environment," Healy said. "It's wins that are what give you stability."

Before Tuesday's win, Tavares told ESPN.com: "For sure, to regress in some ways, the way we have, is disappointing. But in saying that, there's still a lot of season left and we still believe in our group. But at the same time, these are steps that we were hoping we were over. Losing this many games in a row or, when you're not playing well, finding ways to get out of it much quicker or finding ways to win when you're not playing that well.

"For sure, it's not the way we wanted to start the first third of the season, and we expected a lot more of ourselves, and we're just trying to work through it."

You have to feel for Tavares. Last season he came of age as an elite player, a finalist for a Hart Trophy, a leader. When former captain Mark Streit signed as a free agent in Philadelphia, it was a foregone conclusion that Tavares would wear the "C." Being the captain of a losing team is its own special burden and something Tavares feels deeply.

"I hate to lose, and being the leader of the group you take a lot upon yourself to help find a way out of it, whether that's on the ice or in the locker room," Tavares said. "You're always trying to find ways to get better, and obviously it's my first year [as captain] and I'm still learning a lot myself. As a captain, you're trying to feel that pulse of the room, stuff I'm learning and trying to get better at. For sure, it's frustrating."

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