By B.D. Gallof
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I don’t know about you, but my expectations have been exceeded this season. Anyone who thought this team was playoff bound was either named Charles Wang or set a new standard for optimism. Because even the Islanders didn’t quite know if they were ready to take enough of a step forward to be a playoff contender. They felt this team COULD compete, COULD take the next step, COULD surmount a surprise.
But only if several elements went their way.
Five particular items came into play, giving this club a sudden energy. It’s pervasive from the team to the fans to the press, which is starting to understand what has been said for years about the Isles’ prospects and rebuild pieces:
The club is undoubtedly on its way up.
I said consistently throughout the season that 54 points would be needed to achieve a playoff berth, and, lo and behold, the team came together in the second half to do what seemed almost impossible weeks ago: They went 16-5-4, including their current 7-0-3 tear. The Isles’ 5-on-5 play, something I have cited since the start of the season, climbed all the way up to 19th with a 0.98 goals for/against ratio.
5) SECONDARY/DEPTH GUYS MATURED AND GREW UP
Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Jesse Joensuu took next steps. Every one of them was effective on the ice. How many fans held a breath when Cizikas got hurt the other night? Exactly.
Travis Hamonic and Andy MacDonald matured. Yes, they were overused and were almost made the first pairing with first-pairing minutes, but without those minutes — and clearly the coaches’ trust and belief — those two wouldn’t have become key factors to a steady ship, especially when things began to come together.
4) REBUILD DEVELOPMENT PLAN AND THE STEADY COACHING BEHIND IT
You can argue this all you want, but this season’s tough love for Ryan Strome, Griffin Reinhart, Nino Niederreiter and even David Ulstrom set precedents and a new structure that rang like a clarion bell to the players.
Expect this to continue and carry forward as the Islanders want tough competitors and a certain maturity level from players who want to retain their spot or achieve a spot on the team going forward.
A system is finally in place that isn’t just a name that Garth Snow avoided calling out to the press, but was sourced from the Islanders since they started it in 2008: IT WAS A REBUILD.
That rebuild has taken shape, with some needs and pieces yet still to be finalized, but enough has been done to force many a fan to see the indicators and presence during a season on the ice unlike any we’ve seen in quite some time.
For all the complaining about the coaching of Jack Capuano, the strategy and three-prong approach by Brent Thompson and Doug Weight , none of them ever wavered. They worked and worked on the same items until it finally took. Are they the NHL’s best strategists and thinkers? We know that answer.
Results, however, speak for themselves, and they got this team where it needed to be. That is, at this juncture, quite impressive.
3) WAIVER AND FREE-AGENT PICKUPS
It has been like a who’s who of no-names from the waiver wire, starting with Michael Grabner a few years back. This season it was Brian Strait and Thomas Hickey. Hickey played 38 games and was plus-9. Strait played 17 and was plus-4.
Don’t think for a second that Snow just picks up anyone off waivers. He has a good sense of who is on the bubble and obtains enough analysis/information about them and how they would fit this team’s scheme.
Keith Aucoin was used in 39 games, despite cooling from a torrid start. Joe Finley saw 16 and was minus-5. Suffice it to say that I don’t think we will see much of him after this season.
As for free agents, despite all the groaning and moaning by those who saw key players sign elsewhere, the Islanders got production and more from Brad Boyes, who has 35 points in 46 games. He was an outstanding pickup that might not be the long-term first-line answer, but he’s clearly capable offensively.
2) THE EMERGENCE OF A PRODUCTIVE SECOND LINE!
The key to the last part of this season, and what absolutely was a difference-maker between this and last year, is the offensive output of what was to many a yawner of a second line. Frans Nielsen is a player whose style and play is made for a third line. Kyle Okposo, who is perennially hot and then cold, cannot get over the 50-point mark. Josh Bailey was the first-round pick of the rebuild, and he showed only a glimmer of possibility last year when switched from center to wing.
So imagine how hard it is for many to process this line being the hottest Islanders line in the last 10 games. But the fact remains that this trio has not only been the driving force behind the Islanders’ turnaround, it has also been among the best lines in the NHL over the season’s second half.
This line of these three “misfits” accounted for 16 goals — with six well-timed goals coming over the last 10 games.
Nielsen, misused as a second-line center or not, has 29 points, overall. Okposo seemed to become far more effective once Bailey came onto the line, managing a respectable 24 points.
Bailey? In 36 games he has 19 points, including 11 goals, many of which were key in the final run for a playoff spot, and is plus-8.
The bottom line? For all the fans’ fears and complaining, this line has produced — and more. This has been a key difference-maker for a team that was UNABLE to score last season.
1) THE STARS AND THE KEY PLAYERS
Lets start with Lubomir Visnovsky. You know, the guy who didn’t want to be on Long Island — which all the outside press seemed to key in on — and yet signed an extension because he … GASP … liked playing and living here. Imagine that.
Visnovsky has not been a prolific scorer, but his key attribute has been something else: assists, outlet passes and top-line minutes. He is a key figure for the Islanders’ offensive generation, and paired with Hickey they have succeeded in being one of the only units on the plus side of the category.
The Islanders have been more than happy with his play. They have been ecstatic. This is what they wanted when they made the trade for him, despite everyone’s focus on the cap/salary amounts. It was for the talent/attributes to fill a gap on the ice. Don’t also discount his veteran presence and experience, either.
Evgeni Nabokov, a man who was once irate at being picked up off waivers, has been a godsend. Though sometimes human, he has also stolen games. He has offset defensive lapses by a team that still has key gaps and needs, and has become a leading figure in this playoff march.
He hasn’t been tops in the league in stats but has been in one huge category: wins. He is tied for second in the league. He’s also fourth in goals-against average, fifth in saves attempted, fifth in minutes and fifth in games played.
Think he isn’t a big deal? Think again.
By the way, for all his reported playoff failure with the Sharks, he posted a .919 save percentage and a 2.29 GAA in San Jose, something that would get the Islanders pretty far if reproduced.
John Tavares didn’t just become a star; he stepped up and over, becoming a Hart Trophy candidate. He has become a prolific scorer, and he’s done so while opposing teams have spent nights trying to figure out what to do against him.
Scouts from opposing teams have noted his underrated passing, his solid decisions under pressure and his improved skating and speed, especially with the puck.
He is currently third in the NHL in goals, 13th in points and tied for fourth in game-winning goals. More importantly, considering the theme of this column, he is second behind only Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos, with 18 even-strength goals.
Concerned about the kids’ lack of playoff experience? Consider these numbers:
Evgeni Nabokov: 80 playoff games
Marty Reasoner: 23
Lubomir Visnovsky: 18
Keith Aucoin: 14
Mark Streit: 12
Brad Boyes: 11
Matt Carkner: 10
Radek Martinek: 9
Michael Grabner: 9
Eric Boulton: 4
Brian Strait: 3
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