Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 19, 2014

One Skate Out The Door, Islanders Aim For Last Hurrah

Behind a pair of power play goals scored less than a minute apart in the second period, the Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the New York Islanders 3-1 Saturday night. Most hockey fans would scarcely bat an eye reading that sentence, hardly considering it newsworthy. After all, the Penguins are NHL royalty and the Islanders are, well, not.

In the nine years since the NHL lost an entire season to labor strife in 2004-05, the Penguins have averaged more than 100 points a year, after adjusting point totals for the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season to a full 82 game schedule. That’s the kind of record that assures a team a spot in the Stanley Cup playoffs. As one would expect, Pittsburgh made the playoffs all but one of those years, and Sidney Crosby and company won the Cup in 2009.

In that same time period the Islanders have averaged 79 points per season. That happened to be exactly their point total last year, a mark that reflected a losing record of 34-37-11 and a last place finish in the eight-team Metropolitan Division. Last season just four NHL squads posted worse records than the Islanders. Players have skated in playoff games on Long Island in only two of the last nine years and in both 2007 and 2013 the Islanders were eliminated in the opening round.

Despite that history the outcome of Saturday night’s contest at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh was significant, because it meant that there were no longer any undefeated teams in the still young 2014-15 NHL season. As improbable as it might seem, the Islanders were the final franchise with an unblemished record, going into the game against the Penguins with a perfect 4-0-0 mark.

Four straight wins in the season’s first week may be long forgotten come next April when playoff seedings are set. After all, those sub-.500 Islanders from last year had a four-game winning streak of their own, albeit later in the season when they were already mired in the depths of the standings. But more than a few hockey pundits have picked the Islanders to be one of the most improved teams in the league this season. They’ve done so based on a number of offseason moves by general manager Garth Snow and the always-dicey assumption that key players stay healthy this time around.

Last year’s team was undone by the loss of goaltender Evgeni Nabokov to a groin injury and the dismal play by the two netminders called upon to replace him. But then for fans who make the trek to Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum poor goaltending is an all too familiar sight. Spotty play in the crease has been a hallmark of the Islanders for most of their recent run in the lower levels of the standings. In May Snow acquired the rights to Jaroslav Halak from the Capitals and then signed the 29-year old to a four-year $18 million contract. Two months later the general manager added free agent Chad Johnson from the Bruins, giving the 28-year old a two-year deal. In Boston last season Johnson went 17-4-3 with a 2.10 goals against average as the backup to Vezina Trophy winner Tuukka Rask.

After the obvious upgrade to the team’s goaltending, Snow turned his attention to the offense. He signed free agent forwards Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin. The German and Russian had off-years for the Capitals and Maple Leafs last season, but they were a dynamic pair when they played on the same line in Toronto prior to that.

In addition to the new faces, the Islanders and their fans are counting on getting a full season out of veteran defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky, who was limited to just 24 games last year. Even more important will be the return of budding superstar John Tavares. New York made the 24-year old the first overall pick in the 2009 draft. He was second in rookie scoring in the 2009-10 season, and scored 47 points in 48 games in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season to help the Islander reach the playoffs. Last year when the NHL halted play for the Olympics Tavares was third in the league in scoring. Unfortunately for New York Tavares suffered a torn MCL and torn meniscus while playing for Team Canada, and was lost for the season.

A healthy Tavares, vastly improved goaltending, and added offensive punch could combine to make the New York Islanders one of the great turnaround stories of this NHL season. Certainly the team skated like they believed that during the first week of the new campaign. Their fans have waited a very long time for this. In the rafters of the Coliseum hang the four championship banners from the great Islanders dynasty. In the 1980 Stanley Cup finals, a franchise that was less than a decade old outskated the Broad Street Bullies, as the Islanders won their first Cup four games to two over Philadelphia. They won again the following year, and again and again, four straight titles in all. In 1984 they went to the Finals for the fifth consecutive year, losing this time to the Edmonton Oilers, who were starting a dynastic streak of their own.

In winning four consecutive Cups the Islanders posted a playoff record of 60-17, and added a 12-9 mark in losing to the Oilers in 1984. In that five year span the team played ten more playoff games than in the twenty years since. Their 72 playoff victories are more than twice the number of postseason wins by the franchise since those days of glory. But the Islanders potential return to relevance may come too late for much of their existing fan base. With Long Island voters steadfastly rejecting various plans to fund a new arena, the Islanders last year announced plans to relocate to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn after this season.

Technically of course, they will still be on Long Island, so they won’t need to change their name. But while their old home and their new one sit less than thirty miles apart, the psychic difference is astronomical. Suburbanites who have made the drive to the aging arena in Uniondale may not feel at home in the high-tech environs of the ultra-modern facility set squarely in Gotham’s hippest borough. There will be plenty of fans to welcome the Islanders to their new arena, and future playoff games will certainly be sold out. But some of the franchise’s longest-suffering faithful probably won’t be there. For them and for their Islanders, this year it’s all or nothing.

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