If you ask me, right behind our timid, inconsistent offense that has had great difficulty burying the puck this season, this team has been lacking something else from last year that was notable throughout the season. It's not just Jason Blake's 40 goals or the fearless leader in Alexei Yashin....JUST KIDDING! No, it's not baseball swings with hockey sticks or number 3 exploding his "Poti Power" on the blue line..
It's team toughness. This team used to stick up for each others linemates whenever it was called upon. It was an element that Ted Nolan promised would be put back in the game, and you could feel it in his words when he announced he was going to "bring back hitting to the ballroom dancing," during his first press conference as an Islander.
There have been just a few moments that we've seen it this year. I do remember one or two times early this season where Guerin was quick to deliver a face-wash and shove for a hit from behind on Tank or Comrie, or Hunter dropping the gloves for his first NHL fight...but it didn't take long for that element to die down. Simon, who was supposed to be our enforcer, rarely dropped the gloves or even as much threw a body check. But we can thank him for the tap-dancing lessons he displayed on Ruutu's ankle.
We're missing guys like Arron Asham, who although didn't fight on a consistent basis, did it more often than anyone. Of all people, Comrie - who's supposed to be our first line center - has taken on the liberties of dropping his gloves and visor to generate momentum when it seems like there is nothing else to do to motivate this team.
Last night can be seen as a prime example. Our top rookie this year, Blake Comeau, was elbowed, shoved to the ice, speared where the sun doesn't shine, and then sucker punched even though he didn't drop his gloves. And to add to it, Comeau is only 28 games old and was getting attacked by Garnet Exelby, whose been in this league for 5 years. And whose the first player to defend him? Bryan Berard, a guy who has a terrible history of injuries and ailments that has been unable to stay in the lineup due to inconsistent play..and he's the first one to risk his playing time by defending the youngster, Comeau. I can distinctly remember back in the day when Raffi Torres was still wearing the blue, orange, and white, and he received a late-from behind hit, causing Eric Cairns to immediately drop the gloves to defend our young forward. Where has that attitude gone?
By all means, props to Berard..because that was the first sign of team toughness that I've seen since the beginning of the season. Just the other night against Phili, Comrie was checked from behind face first into the boards, and NO ONE did anything about it. Not even our leader, Bill Guerin. Granted, we did get a powerplay out of it and there are times where emotions need to be contained. But that's the problem..for the vast majority of the season it seems like this team has lacked the emotion that it had last year. It's gotten to the point where guys like Mike Comrie and Bryan Berard have taken the liberty upon themselves to defend our players instead of the likes of Guerin, Sutton or Witt.
Don't get me wrong, I am huge fans of the guys I just criticized, but it would be appreciated and well-served if that "Grit. Character. Heart" banner on the Islanders web-site was displayed on a more consistent basis. We saw it last year and we know Ted Nolan has the ability to reach out to his players. So then why does it seem like it's missing now?
I don't believe in the excuse that the "New NHL" has removed fighting from the game. Let's just take a look at the Anaheim Ducks and their mighty 54 fighting majors. 54! I believe the Islanders may be somewhere around 10 or so, give or take a few. There are still tough players in this league more than willing to drop the gloves, and they're not all on the Ducks. Ian Laperriere of the Avelanche is just one example. He has 13 fighting majors alone this season, and only 9 minor penalties. Tough and disciplined - what this team needs.
So why doesn't this team have it? Well, we may be looking at the wrong group. We knew we had the "castaways" that no one wanted in free agent lingo. As fans we tried to stay positive but it has become clear that staying positive has its downfalls, and at times facts need to be taken as facts, and changes are necessary, without question.
I'm sure there are more "Ted Nolan-type" players out there, it's just a matter of finding them.