On a busy Thursday evening in the NHL an early season quirk in scheduling saw the leagues four bottom feeders come together in what could be glibly dubbed the battle for the wooden spoon. Of course none of the four teams entering their respective pre-thanksgiving matchups would be playing without designs on a playoff place with seventy or so games remaining. Indeed the furthest adrift at the start of the day, the New York Islanders in the Eastern Conference and the Los Angeles Kings in the west were no more than five points back of eight place in their particular conferences and the potential to gain some much needed momentum against there fellow strugglers made for some interesting games in the less fashionable corners of the league.
New York Islanders at Atlanta Thrashers 3-4
The opening battle of the night saw a collision of expectations take place in front of a funereal Phillips Arena which must be as much of a concern to the Thrashers management as their inability to get their season going on the ice. As it was few had Atlanta pinned as strugglers with talent such as Kozlov, Kovalchuk and Armstrong amongst their ranks. Conversely few expected much success, rather another year of middling hockey from a team criminally short of depth. However with their talismanic goal score Ilya Kovalchuk getting off to a slow start; their lack of scoring profundity has been exacerbated by a self destructive defense. Whilst entering the evening as the top scoring bottom four side, their blueline had bled for over 3.7 goals per game and it had pinned them in a five way battle for teams on ten points with Phoenix, St. Louis, Dallas and Colorado albeit with the most games played ranking them 27th overall.
For the Islanders, their season had been minimally burdened by any kind of expectation with few anticipating a playoff berth even before the prolonged layoff of franchise man Rick DiPietro. Whilst Joey MacDonald had done an admirable job steering an unwieldy ship, the hotch potch band aid of veterans and youth speaks of a team undergoing an arduous pre-rebuild phase with little in the way of bankable talent for the future. Having demonstrated a porcelain doll fragility of confidence in their defense once scored upon; there had been recent signs of life on Long Island after a torrid start to the season had left them adrift, indeed the Islanders entered the game with a very real chance of a three game winning streak which would push them out of the NHL’s basement.
And so it was the nervous Islanders who took the initial lead with an power play tally from Jon Sim in a wild and feisty start in which Atlanta backup Ondrej Pavelec looked particularly spectacular keeping the Thrashers in the game with a number of crucial early saves.
Even after Slava Kozlov tied the game up within five minutes, the Islanders had the better of a fast paced and exciting first stanza that showed a desire of renegade roster proportions. Carrying this into the second, two quick goals from Frans Nielsen and Trent Hunter seemed to break the spirit of an Atlanta side still awaiting their first back-to-back victory of the year and the Islanders continued to get the best of the offensive chances throughout the second period.
Still the demons of their opening encounters seemed to stalk the Islanders as the third flip flopped in favor of an Atlanta side that had found its verve. An early backhander from Slava Kozlov seemed to rattle the Islanders defense and Jason Williams quickly responded on a power play tip in to tie the game at three a piece. Suddenly the ice looked tilted towards Joey MacDonald and when Tobias Enstrom scored just past the midway point of the third, the Islanders looked lost at the races.
Another capitulation in the space of half a period had seen the delicate Islanders crumble whilst Atlanta will rocket up the standings due to the proximity of their early season competition.
Florida Panthers at Los Angeles Kings 2-3
The second matchup of the evening saw Florida travel to the Staples Center for the first time in three years in the battle of the Sunbelt disappointments.
At the seasons beginning few knew what to make of the Florida Panthers. Having shipped their only real offensive talent in Olli Jokinen to Phoenix, Florida brought in a former junior coach in the shape of Peter DeBoer who preached for more offensive hockey whilst building from the back. Transitional two way D seemed to be the game plan for a franchise schooled in the art of the neutral zone trap and with Keith Ballard being the key name going the opposite direction from Arizona, all bets were out to how the Panthers would gel. It turned out someone forgot the offense all together. Whilst arguably boasting the best goaltending out of the mornings bottom four, the Panthers 3.08 goals against average was a respectable seventeenth in the league ranks, unfortunately their 2.25 goals for average was only outdone by the Tampa Bay Lightning in futility and there total lack of offense was the undoubted catalyst for their 4-7-1 record. That and one of the leagues worst road records.
In Los Angeles things are certainly starting to turn around, after an interminable period of rebuilding dating back almost seven years, the teams poor form and good drafting has seen them accumulate a youth core not too dissimilar to the Pittsburgh Penguins circa 2005-’06. Whilst they may have started the morning in last place, rock bottom of the league, Los Angeles are the only real team in the wooden spoon race with any kind of structure for improvement within the next twelve months. Subsequently with a healthy dose of freshmen and sophomores amongst a smattering of veteran overseers, the Kings are on a tour of experience that only lacks one key ingredient, a goaltender you could mortgage a franchise on.
Subsequently with inadequacies dually noted the game became a showcase for both teams’ shortcomings. With the Panthers unable to stir up any form of first period intensity, a continuation of an unfortunate early season trend, the game quickly devolved into a shooting gallery for a hard working Kings side who left the first period with a two goal lead thanks to an ugly Brian Boyle wrist shot that proceeded a gorgeous power play tally from Tom Preissing. Indeed could the Panthers inability to score be summed up with one image it would be Michael Frolik fanning on a shot into a wide open net with the Panthers only chance in the first.
Even a series of power plays in the second did little for a Panthers team thirtieth in the league on the man advantage and only the solid goaltending of Tomas Vokoun helped the game remain at two as the Kings outshot the Panthers 24-6 by the close of the second.
Only in the third did the Panthers manage to apply any kind of offensive pressure in a Kings end that had been so regally guarded and with the first whispers of pressure the LA backup Erik Ersberg fluffed on an aimless Anthony Stewart shot to make the game far more exciting that it needn’t be. Even after Dustin Brown managed to restore the Kings two goal cushion with a cunning faked pass wrist shot, the previously hopeless Panthers managed to make the final minute a nail biter with Nathan Horton scoring shorthanded with fifty seconds left.
Nonetheless the Kings held on to move into the party of teams on ten points. The Panthers remain in single digits and will start to wonder where the scoring will come from.
The bottom four that entered on Thursday morning are now two, such is the whim so early in the year. Regardless of result, last night perhaps showed who will be propping up the standings come April. The Islanders for all their pace and guile have a fragility resulted from a general crisis of confidence minus DiPietro. Despite scrapping a playoff berth in 2006-’07 there looks to be a number of years of rebuilding required before the Islanders can dream of the halcyon days of the early 80’s. With a roster deeply flawed in its makeup, the Islanders feel like a team of veterans, depth men and fringe youngsters that need a complete restructuring, what concerns most is there is very little in the way of trade leverage to even begin.
For the Panthers their years of mediocrity run all the way back to 2000 and whilst the team have never been necessarily weak, their lack of depth, support and general ethos suggests many players see the Panthers as a holiday on ice. Indeed without the trappings of overt media attention and the constant Floridian sunshine there seems something fundamentally wrong with the work that goes on behind the scenes. This year the flip flop trades and player merry go rounds that seem to encircle the Panthers every post season has turned the team into a back heavy side at just the time an offensive thinking coach came in. With Jokinen’s 35 goals a season now shipped to Phoenix, many are wondering where the scoring is going to come from, especially when Jokinen’s compensation came in the form of D-man and now leading point getter Keith Ballard. Ballard certainly wasn’t acquired to lead the offense and yet so inept have the Panthers been in trying to convert into a transitional defensive team that they appear completely unable to create pressure in opponents defensive zones, not least because of their forwards unwilling to pressure the puck carrier or forecheck. Were it not for Vokoun the Panthers would have sunk to the bottom of the pile a long time ago and that will almost certainly be where they will find themselves at the close of 2008-‘09.
Atlanta will more than likely miss out on the playoffs once again this year and will be closer to the likes of the Panthers and the Islanders than those fighting for eight place in the Eastern Conference. Indeed born out of a weak division, Atlanta have never truly gotten to grips with teams outside the Southeastern and with the schedules returning to a more balanced makeup, Atlanta will struggle to impose themselves at all, especially if Kovalchuk’s scoring drought continues. With dwindling crowds, the Thrashers are starting to reek of wasted potential and they will likely finish well adrift of the big dance.
The Los Angeles Kings are the only bright spark of the afternoon bottom dwellers. Still getting to grips with the league with so many young faces, the Kings have already shown incredible maturity boasting one of the leagues best penalty killing units. Whilst there may be a year or two to go in development, the Kings are finally back on track with only the procurement of a quality goaltender required to make the team truly competitive, whether Jonathon Bernier can be that man remains to be seen. They may well miss out on the playoffs this year, albeit narrowly, but next year the Kings should be in the mix.