For most people, Philadelphia is known as "the City of Brotherly Love." For the New York Islanders, that nickname couldn't possibly be more misleading.
The Flyers have shown the Isles anything but brotherly love over the last few seasons, and they've beaten New York in 18 of the last 19 contests between the two teams.
As if their chances weren't bad enough already, the fact that the Flyers are at the top of the Eastern Conference can't be good for the team's self-confidence.
These divisional rivals have faced off on three occasions this year, and none of those matchups ended happily for the Islanders.
Their most recent battle was back on October 30th, at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, where the Broad Street Bullies demolished the Isles, 6-1. New York was, of course, in the midst of one of the worst losing stretches in NHL history at the time.
That's not to say that they've had better luck against the Flyers under improved circumstances. The Islanders never seem to be able to defeat this squad, for a variety of reasons.
While the team's clear lack of success against Philly may be ample evidence to suggest another loss for New York tonight, let's take a look at some of the factors that have doomed them in recent outings versus the Flyers and which of those issues have been rectified since the All-Star Break:
First off, earlier in the season, the Isles hardly used their toughness and compete level to their advantage. Failure to do so spells disaster for any NHL team, especially when facing a team that describes themselves as the "Broad Street Bullies."
But the Isles have changed this part of their game and have shown not only a willingness to mix it up, but also a zero-tolerance policy regarding the respect (or lack thereof) other teams have shown towards them.
If players start taking runs at New York's stars, teammates will stand up for each other and will get physical when necessary.
Zenon Konopka, Matt Martin and Travis Hamonic have no problem sending the proper message whenever it's deemed appropriate.
Second, for the first half of this season, it almost seemed as if the Islanders were avoiding the offensive zone. Philadelphia is a high-scoring team, and if you can't score goals, that becomes a major issue if you're trying to beat them.
The Isles have shed that label, and are now the only team in the NHL to feature three players with 23 or more goals this season. Until their last game, when they fell to Toronto, 2-1, the Islanders had scored three or more goals in nine consecutive games.
They have scored more goals than other high-powered offenses in the league, including the Washington Capitals.
Scoring is no longer an issue for this team.
And finally, defensive coverage is the key to success in any sport, hockey being no exception to that rule. For much of this season, New York's defense looked virtually non-existent. They were sloppy, they couldn't break up plays or clear the puck out to end drives and opponents would simply bury the Islanders in their own zone for entire periods.
The team has learned to be more responsible on both ends of the ice, and teams aren't getting all the scoring chances they used to look forward to when playing the Isles.
The Flyers will not be able to control the flow of play entirely, as they were able to do in games past.
It is not yet known who will start in goal for New York, but I'd put my money on Al Montoya. He's been an absolute stud for this team since he got here, and the Isles will want to play the hot goalie against a Flyer offense that is among the best in the league.
*UPDATE, 11:51 AM- Islanders Head Coach Jack Capuano has announced that Al Montoya will indeed start tonight's game.
The Isles will likely be short two of their top defensemen, as Milan Jurcina and Radek Martinek are nursing injuries. The younger blue-liners, namely Andrew MacDonald and Travis Hamonic, will have to step up their effort in order to shut Philly down.
Defenseman Mark Katic has been called up from Bridgeport of the AHL and Bruno Gervais will likely be in the lineup in order to fill the holes created by those injuries.
The Islanders have been most effective in desperation mode, and having beaten this Flyers team just once in the last 19 tries, they should be in that frame of mind coming into tonight's game.
There have been times this season that the Islanders have shown a never-give-up attitude and have answered their opponents goal-for-goal, save-for-save, as well as answering the bell from a physical standpoint when they've needed to.
If the New York Islanders are to win this game, it's going to take a full team effort.
This is not like the Florida game, where the Isles knew they were simply the better team. This is far different. They're facing the best team in the conference, a team that has a surplus of offensive talent, (Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Daniel Briere, Claude Giroux and newly-added Kris Versteeg) and plenty of grit and skill on the defensive side (Chris Pronger, Matt Carle, Kimmo Timmonen), not to mention strong goaltending in Sergei Bobrovsky and Brian Boucher.
Players to Watch
If the Islanders want to make a statement on offense, they need to do it with star power.
Tavares has 16 points in his last 11 games and is on pace to easily surpass the 54 points he had as a rookie last season. In a big game such as this one, he needs to take charge, and in doing so, give his teammates the confidence to bring the Flyers down, one goal at a time.
Look for him, as well as his linemates (P.A. Parenteau and Matt Moulson) to do just that.
A major part of New York's offensive attack, he is a special player, because whether you're Chris Pronger or Wade Redden, as soon as Grabner takes a single stride, he's gone.
At full-speed, there's not a defenseman in the league who can contain him. He also has the ability to turn shorthanded situations into goals for his team, an asset that is of great value, especially when your opponent features one of the best power-play units in the National Hockey League.
He has to be on his game if the Islanders are going to win tonight.
Now, you're probably thinking, "Which one of these doesn't belong with the others?"
After all, my first two players to watch are both offensive-minded players, and Konopka's not exactly a point producer.
But Zenon has been at the forefront of the Isles' recent success, because not only does he support his team verbally, but he also backs up what he says with his play on the ice.
He is among the top 10 in faceoff wins in the entire league, which is going to be key for New York, and even more important should they be fortunate enough to require protecting the lead late in this game.
You can also count on Konopka to protect his teammates, should Chris Pronger (non-surprisingly) decide to take some shots at guys like Tavares, Okposo, or basically anyone else in an Islanders shirt. The Isles need to show Philadelphia that they're not intimidated, because if they are, the game's all but lost.
Zenon Konopka is the type of player who doesn't back down to anyone, and you can be sure that he's not going to step back from any challenge the Flyers send his way.
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For the New York Islanders, this will perhaps be their toughest game of the season.
The good news is, they're finally capable of defeating this team and are more prepared to do so than they have been in a long time.
I'll recap the game later tonight.
Comments are welcome.
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