The New York Islanders defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 on Tuesday, solidifying a 7-1-1 stretch over their last nine games. In this time, the trade deadline came and went, and so did the naysayers who didn’t believe this Islander team had the pieces to make a playoff run.
With eight games remaining, the New York Islanders have 44 points and are tied with the Ottawa Senators for the sixth seed. Ottawa has one game at hand, but more importantly, the Islanders are now four points clear of the ninth. They have their destiny in their hands, and that’s the position any team battling for a playoff berth hopes to be in at this point in the season.
The Nassau Coliseum has erupted over the last few games. A playoff atmosphere, a sincere excitement and draw for fans has been missing during the long five years of the current rebuild. These last two wins, against teams below them in the standings which had to beat and did mightily, have shown this is finally a different New York Islanders.
Why the shift? Look no further than the rebuild finally paying off.
The Big Line… And we are not talking about Tavares’ and Moulson’s
Kyle Okposo, Josh Bailey, and Frans Nielsen have gelled into the 2nd line this organization so desperately hoped they would. Nielsen had a slow start to the year, but is playing like a legit second line center. Bailey, finally shaking the dust from a overseas lockout injury, has been clutch and exciting as he’s opened the play up for his linemates with routine dazzling maneuvers. Okposo’s energy, grit and bowl-over power has finally flourished as he is now using his strengths to set his line up.
They have become dynamite on the forecheck and their possession time with the puck has continually risen over the last few weeks. A line built out of home grown talent, that the fans have been patient (well, as patient as New York fans can be) to see flourish has finally arrived.
As the Islanders have started to gel their defense has become one of the most dependable in the league. They now boast a solid three pairs. It’s no longer just on Travis Hamonic and Andrew McDonald’s back anymore. Lubimor Visnovsky has shown flashes of offensive brilliance and a stalwart veteran presence. His partner Thomas Hickey looks like the steal of the season after picking him up off waivers from the L.A. Kings. He has proven to be dependable beyond his young years, looking cool and collective as he controls the play.
Captain Mark Streit survived the trade deadline, and continues to be the leader and steady defender on this team. The Islanders didn’t go out and find a rental player, instead they rolled the dice on Streit’s contract. Even if these are his last few months with the team, his value has never been higher.
Besides, this is the end of his five year contract with the Isles. He probably wants to taste playoff success more than anyone at this point. Lately, Streit’s partner has been Matt Carkner, a passionate hard nosed player who’s intensity seems to infect the entire team.
Every hit Matt Martin lays means something more now. Every mad dash effort by Casey Cizikas is a reminder that every extra stride, check, and shot counts. When Colin McDonald scores, you feel how hard he’s worked to have his first ever full NHL season. These are the kind of players a team needs to succeed. They give it all every shift, and may not be on the highlight real, but everyone who watches knows how valuable they are to the success of the team.
It goes without saying that to have success in the NHL you must have strong goaltending. Evgeni Nabokov’s veteran presence and experience is paying off. He’s been the workhorse all season and is now steering the team ever closer to a playoff spot. Most of all, he looks like he’s having fun. He saw something in this team last season, which is why he signed an extension instead of testing the free agent waters.
Perhaps this playoff push is exactly what he foresaw. The team also finally recorded a win with Kevin Poulin in goal against Winnipeg earlier in the week, finally dispelling the myth that they could only win with Nabby in net.
Tavares has been pulling this team along all year. He is their superstar and finally, the rest of the team is playing with his confidence. No one else may have his ability, but he’s changed the culture of this team. The Islanders are winning the games they must win. They are holding onto leads. Their third period collapses feel like they are the shortcomings of a team from years ago, not a month ago. This team is playing 60 minute hockey and they believe they can be a playoff team. When they win lately, there isn’t over the top celebration, instead they talk about the next opponent. They are focused. They have gelled at the absolute right time.
There are still eight games to be played. Plenty of teams behind them still trying to catch up and surpass their current position. This week they play a Bruins team that has owned them over the past few seasons. Then on Saturday, all the eyes will be on one of the first New York Islanders and New York Rangers games with significant playoff meaning in many years. It’s sure to be a classic.
But it doesn’t seem like this team is going to collapse. The confidence is contagious. The Coliseum crowds are chanting “We Want Playoffs!” Deep down, they’re also hoping this isn’t just a team that will break the playoffless streak, but the one that could continue to gel and maybe go on a run this spring. Break a 20 year drought of not advancing past the first round? Maybe more? The point is now there’s hope. There’s excitement. There’s something to cheer about on Long Island.
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