UNIONDALE, N. Y.– 72 degrees in New York today, a sign of Spring in full-bloom and an impending Summer in the not too distant future. And for the past 6 years or so, Spring meant only three things for me: Islanders out, Knicks out or on the verge of being ousted, and the Mets rolling their proverbial Sisyphean boulder uphill for another irrelevant season.
For six years Islander country has seen the postseason from the outside-in with detached interest, imagining the ‘what-ifs’, seeing former players reaching the pinnacle of the sport, while always shaking their head asking: Why not us? Why has this once respectable, feared, and lauded organization suddenly and irrevocably disappeared from the stage it once owned so prominently?
Blame the owner, manager, coaches, or perhaps more directly, Mike Milbury. Pick your poison, as it were. Be that as it may, the Islanders are in the playoffs as of today, as Evgeni Nabokov stated in his post game interview the other night, and are poised to make a run for the cup rarely seen in recent times:
As far as I’m concerned, we are in the playoffs [...] That’s what this is for us. We have to keep rolling. The key here is we can’t lose two or three in a row. We have to continue to find a way to get points.
Those of you who are under the age of 28 relive the Isles’s championship seasons on Youtube, for the most part, with the occasional looping of David Volek‘s goal that ended the Penguins drive for the cup back in the 90s, as the most recent of fortuitous postseason appearances and outcomes. (We shall skip the 1994 season for obvious reasons.)
And there are many critics and reporters that are expecting the Islanders to drag their feet in the next three matchups, leading to the last five road games that will ‘inevitably’ bear witness to their demise. Those who expect such a fallout haven’t truly been watching this team string together their wins. But most importantly, the lack of attention and respect and confidence from outsiders only bolsters the Islanders’s chances of making a serious dent in what’s left of the regular season.
Mainly, the pressure is all on the Rangers to put up or shut up, what with the recent hullabaloo regarding the Ryane Clowe trade and the acquisition in the offseason of Rick Nash. The Rangers could very well make the playoffs, but could very well not. Not too a familiar position for them, but all too familiar for their cross-town rivals. And that aforementioned point is the force driving the Islanders closer and closer to achieving something special: not fear of being left out, but the confidence mentioned by Nabokov: We’re here and we’re staying. Get used to it.
Rest assured, most die-hards like myself, have asked for the heads of players and coaches who initially had a direct hand in incredibly bad losses (the Flyers 7-0 win at the Coli still represents one of the worst defeats and poorest coaching days for team and coaches alike this season–leaving Nabby out there to dry is still unforgivable) who find themselves as key protagonists in what has become a playoff-conscious team. In fact, Jack Capuano and his staff have juggled the lines to the best of their abilities and have been patient with the likes of Brad Boyes, Josh Bailey, and especially Kyle Okposo, who have collectively served up the juiciest of opportunities for this burgeoning organization.
Thus, the middle of the New York Islanders squad (19-16-4), have stepped into their respective roles and given something back to John Tavares and Evgeni Nabokov who both, lest we forget, brought us to the halfway point of the season. Say what you will about Tavares’s recent play, the fact is that he’s readjusting to the team he once carried single-handedly on his back. In due time, ladies and gentlemen, our star player will reemerge in time to take his team over the edge and into true dominance and brilliance.
For now, however, let us all focus on the open road directly facing us: the Philadelphia Flyers (17-18-3) come into the Coliseum confines owning the sheath of ice as of the last eight contests, none more enduring and resounding as the aforementioned 7-0 whipping February 18th. Simply put, the Islanders are just plain awful against the Flyers regardless of where Philly finds itself at present.
Thus, tonight’s matchup means more than another notch in the belt, another step toward the playoffs. No, more than all of that, tonight’s matchup and possible victory can put many of the negativity absorbed and/or purported this season to bed. The Islanders are successful as of late because they play each game as if their lives depend on it.
Remember, if you or can, the last time you ever felt confident in an Isles’s team down 1 goal in the middle of the third? I sure was, as I turned to my Pops during the Tampa game and said: no worries, they’ll tie it up somehow. Sure enough he turns to me and says, “You know what, I don’t doubt it.”
That confidence and borderline arrogance isn’t misappropriated, for that attitude won cups in the 1980s and beat a heavily favored Penguins team, laced with the most ridiculous talent on earth, in 1993: Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr defeated by David Volek. Ridiculous, you say? No. The 1993 New York Islanders team simply asked and answered the question: WHY NOT US?
The Penguins can bronze a statue of Mario beating two Islanders on the way toward a goal, but he most assuredly has the memory of losing his drive for three cups erased by a player most people don’t remember.
Whatever happens this evening, the Islanders have very little room to breathe this week.
Expect Wayne Simmonds and the rest of the D to go after Tavares and Matt Martin early, as the latter more than the former is at the heart of this recent spell of wins and energy. Martin has been nothing short of brilliant, and for me, defines this emerging era of New York Islanders hockey: blue-collar, rag-taggers who play with tremendous heart and audacity to boot. (Two points here: Simmonds and Martin have some serious history between one another, so bet your bottom dollar that these guys will tango before the night is out. Both wear the #17, FYI. Battle for the jersey #s I guess, much like in soccer with the #10s.)
ESPN.com reports that Scott Hartnell skated with the team this morning, but no word yet as to his possible appearance in tonight’s game. (His productivity this year hasn’t truly been anything to write home about.) Nevertheless, expect to see his mullet on the ice tonight.
But the point being made here is that the Islanders are up against a team that is playing desperate hockey, and with that desperation comes over-aggressiveness and risky playmaking. In other words, the Flyers will throw everything the Islanders way, including the kitchen sink, to put them off their game plan. The Flyers are out to hurt people tonight. The Islanders need to stay calm, absorb and respond in turn, but stay out of the box and put the puck in the net. That’s it.
As of two hours ago, the unofficial word is that Matt Carkner, Matt Moulson, Radek Martinek, and Anders Lee may sit this matchup out, so let’s see in which direction Capuano steers the ship, as I’m sure he’s looking to keep Casey Cizikas and Martin together on the third line again, as that tandem worked wonders in the last matchup, as well as Grabner up front with JT and Boyes. But when it’s all said and done, however, Kyle Okposo and his linemates are the key to tonight’s victory: his size, his fearless play against the boards, and Bailey’s vision on the ice will allow for more scoring opportunities and goals against a Flyers team most certainly depending on checks than sticks to win tonight’s game.
EDITOR’S NOTE [UPDATE 1.13pm] EDITOR’S NOTE
As of 1pm this afternoon, the Islanders are reporting that Matt Carkner is in for Radek Martinek, while Moulson will, in fact, return to the lineup. Lee will sit this one out, as expected.
Follow Rich Diaz @eyesonisles (Eyes’s very own Nabby) –I’ll be bringing you tonight’s postgame, as well.
Follow Scotty Bonner @MoosiestMoose42 (the Matt Martin of the bunch)
Follow Andy Graziano @tazman19 (Cizikas par excellence)
Follow Michael Willhoft @michaelwillhoft (the Ivy-Leaguer with the Grabner style and swagger)
Enjoy. Good day to you.