By Daniel Friedman
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The New York Islanders are off to their best start in a dozen years, posting a record of 2-0-1 through the first three games of the 2013-14 season.
Kicking things off on the road against the New Jersey Devils, the Isles snuck away with a shootout win. The following night, they faced the Columbus Blue Jackets in their home opener at Nassau Coliseum. That contest went to a shootout as well, earning the Islanders another point in the standings, but they wound up on the wrong side of the final score.
On Tuesday night at the Coliseum, the Isles’ offense simply exploded, lighting the lamp six times and chasing the Phoenix Coyotes’ star goaltender, Mike Smith, out of the net. Nine players got on the scoresheet and, of those, five had multi-point nights.
It was a game in which the Islanders didn’t even play their best, something that head coach Jack Capuano alluded to in his press conference. Yet, despite that, they still dominated the Coyotes, leaving Shane Doan and Martin Hanzal visibly frustrated.
It was also a game in which the Isles showed up to the third period, which was not the case on Saturday night: “We wanted to play sixty minutes of consistent effort tonight, or close to sixty minutes to their best of our ability,” Capuano said. “For the most part, we did that, but to me, it was a test after the second period; how are we gonna play in the third, how are we gonna respond to what we did the other night.”
Offensively, the Isles put on an absolute clinic, with a dizzying array of passes, some excellent puck-movement and a smooth transition game.
Really, a lot of their success was based on the fact that several different players chipped in, something that John Tavares was very quick to point out in the locker room.
“I think you see how many guys contributed tonight,” said Tavares. “It was huge for us. Colin (McDonald) scored, (Peter) Regin scored, Frans (Nielsen) made a lot of great plays out there. The power play scored. We got it from many different areas. We need that, and that’s what made a big difference for us late last year — our depth. I don’t think we’ve had a team with this kind of depth in a while and even guys who aren’t even here are pushing. I think we’ve got a deep hockey team and, whoever’s out there, we’re just trying to get the job done.”
The second line, comprised of Frans Nielsen (five points), Josh Bailey (four points) and Michael Grabner (six points) has been outstanding.
Tavares has been his usual elite self (four points), and at least one of his line-mates is coming through. I don’t think I need to tell you which one is and which one isn’t.
Lubomir Visnovsky and Matt Donovan have been active in joining the rush and have two points each. Peter Regin broke out against Phoenix and, hopefully, Kyle Okposo did as well. It won’t be long before Pierre-Marc Bouchard hits his stride too; he just needs to build some confidence and, once that happens, this offense will become that much stronger.
The Isles’ newest pair of young guns stepped up as well. Brock Nelson picked up his first NHL point, with an assist on Peter Regin’s goal, and Matt Donovan notched his first career goal, giving him two points in three games.
Capuano liked what he saw: “As camp went on, our discussions with them as a coaching staff were that we need to see more. We know there’s creativity there, we know there’s some offensive flair to your game, and I think they feel comfortable hearing that from us and the way we want them to play, and I think that’s carried over and they’ve played well.”
While the Isles’ defense is far from the finished product, their offense is remarkably deep.
The ability to roll four lines goes a long way towards winning hockey games, and it’s the main reason why the Islanders have successfully transformed themselves from a top-heavy rebuilding team into a playoff contender with a well-balanced attack.
A few years ago, Ryan Strome would’ve been a shoo-in for the Isles’ opening night roster. Now, however, their depth has given them the flexibility to send him to Bridgeport. Additionally, Cal Clutterbuck’s return means that someone else will have to sit. That will be a rather tough decision for the coaching staff to make.
These are problems that didn’t remotely exist a relatively-short while ago and they are all good ones to have.
Depth is one thing, but when you have speed to go along with it, that can make you extremely dangerous. During last year’s playoffs, NBC Sports Network’s Brian Engblom made countless references to the Islanders’ team speed.
On Tuesday night, the Isles put the pedal to the metal once again and it paid off instantly. Their speed gave Phoenix nightmares all over the ice, just as it had done when the Islanders took the Pittsburgh Penguins to six games last Spring.
Capuano expressed this after the game as well: “We want to play fast. That’s the style that this team wants to play and how we have to play,”
Another factor in the team’s early success has been the steady play of Evgeni Nabokov. The subject of intense criticism going into this season, “Nabby” has won two of his three starts, posting a 1.89 goals-against average and .935 save percentage.
Granted, it’s very early and there’s little chance of him keeping those stellar numbers intact, but what Nabokov has proven is that, at the very least, he can provide reliable goaltending and keep the Islanders in games.
Nabokov was a big reason why they made the playoffs last year and will be just as important to their postseason aspirations in 2013-14.
“He (Nabokov) has played well,” remarked Capuano. “When he plays like that and he plays confident, when we get the goaltending from him, he gives our team a chance to win. He’s been real good for us.”
There is every reason for Islander fans to be pleased with what they’ve seen thus far. For the players and coaches, however, it’s a different story and they’re far from being content.
“We have to be hard on them, as a staff,” said Capuano. “There are some things we need to work on, for sure. They had some chances tonight and we talked about a lot of it in our pre-scout; how we needed to execute and there were some breakdowns. Our awareness, our decision-making and our discipline were just okay. I’m starting to see us play like we did the second half of last year, which is positive, but there are certain areas in our game we need to clean up.”
The Islanders might still have what to work on, but they have the depth and determination to pull through — something they have not had for a very long time.
Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter @DFriedmanWFAN
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