By Daniel Friedman
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Prior to the Olympic break, the New York Islanders had played 30 games at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Most of those didn’t go well — they’d only won eight of them this season — but there was something very different about home game No. 31.

Not just because of who was or wasn’t in the lineup, but also because you could really sense the uncertainty among the Isles’ contingency in the building. People didn’t quite know who or what to cheer for, though they definitely knew who to jeer for — namely Thomas Vanek and Andrew MacDonald.

Assuming they miss the playoffs, Thursday night was the first of 22 contests the Islanders will play without John Tavares. As if that weren’t enough, the trade deadline is right around the corner, which means Vanek and MacDonald are on the way out.

Oh, and Frans Nielsen and Matt Martin are still day to day with injuries, too.

Those are just a few of many not-so-friendly reminders that this year, one that began with such optimism and hope, has turned out to be a major disappointment. It can be a lot to swallow; not only for the fans, but for the players in the locker room, but coach Jack Capuano has stressed that the focus hasn’t changed:

“You can never control what you can’t control,” said Capuano. “It’s not a good situation, obviously, that we’ve got Nielsen and Tavares out of our lineup. We’re preparing our team like we did at the start of the year and like we did last year, when we made the push at the end as well. We wanna continue to teach, we wanna develop, but we wanna win hockey games.”

On Thursday morning, I asked Capuano what his message to the players was.

“Guys know exactly where we’re at,” he replied. “The message is to stay the course, stay focused, stay committed. Your work ethic will dictate the scoreboard. It’s a game of mistakes, we know that, but the biggest thing is to stay together. It starts here tonight; play for the guy next you, play for the guy across from you. That’s the biggest thing — staying together and believing in one another.”

From an outside perspective, it can be difficult to understand why anyone on that team would still believe. This has been a season from hell, after all.

But athletes don’t think that way. To them, nothing is over until (insert cliché here). Whether or not it translates into actual results is a different story, but for now, the collective mindset amongst Islanders players is that they can still do this thing.

You won’t convince Nielsen that the clock has struck 12.

“We all still believe,” he said. “We’ve gotta take it one day at a time; we can’t lose a lot of hockey games for what’s left. We’ve gotta start winning.”

Nielsen, who’s having a fine season in his own right (43 points in 60 games), told me he doesn’t feel more pressure with Tavares out of the lineup, but that he’ll certainly embrace the situation.

“I don’t know if anyone can expect me to do what (Tavares) does; he’s tough to replace,” he said. “It’s gonna be a fun challenge — I’m gonna get more responsibility out there, so I’m looking forward to it.”

If there’s a silver lining in all of this, it’s that some of the younger players are going to get a chance to strut their stuff and give the Isles a boost.

“It gives an opportunity for us to put guys in a situation probably a little quicker,” said Capuano.

On that note, I was thoroughly impressed with Anders Lee, Ryan Strome and Mike Halmo on Thursday night.

That trio had played exceptionally well in Bridgeport (AHL), and after lengthy discussions between Islanders and Sound Tiger coaches, it was decided that they’d earned a serious look at the NHL level.

Capuano had high praise for the three youngsters on Wednesday, particularly for Lee.

“The one thing that you notice about (Lee) is how strong he is on the puck and how he puck-protects,” Capuano remarked. “He skates pretty well for a big guy. He’s got a good shot, a quick release, but he’s good in tight areas. He’s good from the hash marks down in, and we’ve been missing a guy that gets to those dirty areas, those greasy areas, that likes to pay the price.”

During his brief two-game stint with the Islanders last year, Lee recorded a goal and an assist. This time around, Lee knows this situation is different; the team isn’t on the verge of a postseason berth and it’s without the franchise superstar.

“It’s a big opportunity for me and the other guys,” he said. “We want to do our best and help this team win. I’m gonna play the same game I’ve been playing in Bridgeport; going into the corners, being in front of the net, having the ability to score, feeding off my linemates.”

I asked him if that’s what the coaches have been talking to him about.

“Absolutely,” he said. “They don’t want me to change anything. Playing my game will be the best thing for me.”

Judging by his performance against Toronto, that strategy seems to be working just fine.

For my money, Lee was the best player on the ice. He was physical along the boards and in the corners, drove to the net and made an impact, scoring twice in a 4:28 span during the third period to erase 3-2 and 4-3 deficits.

After the game, he humbly suggested that he “got lucky a few times,” placing more emphasis on the perseverance of his teammates.

“It’s resiliency,” he said. “We faced a little bit of adversity all night. It’s that point of the year where it doesn’t matter what the score is; we’ve gotta work hard and try to get as many opportunities as possible.”

Lee’s second goal came off a great feed from Strome, who was positioned behind the net and ladled the puck through traffic, tape-to-tape.

For Strome, it’s all about building confidence and starting to produce on the big stage.

“I think it’s important that I try and establish myself, make sure I’m coming in there next year and I’m ready for a full-time job,” he said. “I get a chance for an audition here, at a time when the team needs some desperate wins, so a lot of guys are hungry to play. It’s a good opportunity.”

I asked Strome if he felt more prepared this time around.

His response? “Definitely.”

“First game, first goal is out of the way, but I think you can always learn,” he explained. “When you get sent down, you’ve gotta have some things to work on, but it also puts a little fire in your stomach to come back and work a bit harder and wanna stay.”

What’s the next step for him?

“My goal is to never go back down, help this team win and really establish myself.” he said.

As for Halmo, let’s just say he made an immediate impact, leveling Phil Kessel on his first shift. He’s a gritty, physical presence and I thought he was very effective last night.

You look at some of the other players who’ve chipped in lately, and you do see evidence of an all-hands-on-deck approach.

Josh Bailey notched an assist and now has points in four of his last five games. Michael Grabner scored a pair of shorthanded markers on the same two-minute penalty and Calvin de Haan moved the puck well, recording another helper. That’s starting to become more of a regular occurrence.

“We have enough leadership and character in that room, but it’s a gut check for some guys,” said Capuano. “With the injuries that we have, they have to step up and play better.”

Part of becoming a better team is learning how to overcome adversity. With Tavares out and the trade deadline looming, I’d say this qualifies as an adverse situation.

Whether it’s the younger players fighting for roster spots or the role players looking to show some pride, I think this team will show a ton of heart the rest of the way. The more work they put in now, the better off they’ll be in 2014-15.

If Thursday night’s game was any indication, the Islanders will not go down quietly.

Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter @DFriedmanOnNYI.

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