With the trade deadline in their rearview mirror, Zenon Konopka, Radek Martinek and the rest of the New York Islanders can finally play distraction-free hockey.
Pressure situations do not bode well for a young and inexperienced team, and as rumors continued to swirl, the Isles' style of play became more and more tentative.
In the past three games, the Islanders have come away with three losses, and aside from the heartbreaker in Philadelphia, those losses came as a result of the team shying away from aggressive play on both ends of the ice.
In contrast, when the Isles didn't have much to worry about, they played some of their best hockey of the season, particularly in a 3-0 shutout of the Los Angeles Kings at Nassau Coliseum.
After that game, Kings head coach Terry Murray explained the logic behind New York's resurgence:
“The Islanders, right now, are in a very relaxed state. Their players are just playing. They’re stretching guys out. They’re leaving the zone early, to look for those long opportunities. There’s no pressure, there’s no consequence for anything that’s happening out there right now. So that’s the easiest time in your life to play hockey, is when you’re just having fun."
Coach Murray could not have been more on-target.
Of course, the exact opposite holds true when you are not in a relaxed state. I don't know if anyone else saw it quite this way, but to me it appeared obvious that Zenon Konopka had other thoughts on his mind during several moments in those recent contests, a recipe for disaster for this Islander team, because Zenon's a leader in that locker room.
My point is, if Konopka was nervous, imagine how those teammates who look up to him must have felt. Attitude reflects leadership, and if "Z" is fired up, the rest of the guys usually are too. Having gotten the monkey off his back, Konopka should be ready to go, and hopefully, the Islanders will feed off his positive energy.
Now that the deadline has passed, the Isles can turn their attention toward tonight's game, when they take on the Washington Capitals at the Verizon Center.
New York will be seeking revenge, having lost to the Caps this past Saturday night at the Coliseum. In order to properly do so, they'll need to play a full 60 minutes this time, unlike the last meeting between these two teams, when the Isles jumped out to a 2-0 lead, only to surrender three unanswered goals, leading to 3-2 win for Washington.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the Capitals have added three new players to their roster, trading for center Jason Arnott and defenseman Dennis Wideman, and picking up forward Marco Sturm off waivers. All three are expected in the lineup for tonight's game, and it will be up to the coaching staff and players to adjust accordingly.
Taking Schremp's roster spot will be Justin DiBenedetto, who leads the Islanders AHL affiliate, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, with 15 goals on the season.
Nathan Lawson will start between the pipes for New York, as per Newsday's Katie Strang. This is a bit surprising, because normally you'd play you're best goalie against an offense like Washington's.
The New York Islanders can beat the Caps if they show consistency throughout the entire game. The Isles are only as effective as the momentum they generate, and when they hit the brakes, the opposing team has all but won the game.
Hopefully, most of that recent tentativeness was a result of trade deadline anxiety, and therefore will not be an issue for the Islanders moving forward.
Players to Watch
DiBenedetto is being given an opportunity to strut his stuff at the professional level, let's see how he responds. He's also being reunited with Matt Martin, a linemate of his in juniors, so perhaps the two can revive some of that pre-existing chemistry that made them, along with Steven Stamkos, the most dangerous line in the OHL.
It goes without saying that as of three o'clock yesterday, Konopka is probably the most excited player on this team, and definitely one of the only NHLers of recent memory to take pride in wearing an Islander uniform. ZK is going to have a good game, I can just feel it.
Hillen had a bit of a disappointing performance on Saturday night, providing the most glaring example of the team's lack of aggression in the last period and a half of that game, by floating back and letting Alex Ovechkin bring the puck into the Isles' zone, instead of forechecking the Russian superstar.
Who will win tonight?
Jack is an effective blueliner for this team when his game is intact, and I think as his teammates begin putting the pieces back together, Hillen will follow suit.
I'll recap the game later tonight.
Comments are welcome.