The hockey world has had nothing but respect for the New York Islanders recently – and rightfully so.
The two biggest games I watched during the winter break were definitely the shutout of the rival New York Rangers on Tuesday, Jan. 13. To shutout their rivals in their opponent’s arena, Madison Square Garden, was a huge momentum boost (as if the Isles needed any more momentum). The Isles then defeated their other rivals, the Pittsburgh Penguins 6-3 in a come-from behind victory in their next game. Isles forward Kyle Okposo scored four goals in the victory, recording his first career hat-trick.
Okposo is stepping up to become the player that the organization knows he can be. I still do not understand how he was snubbed from the USA Olympic team last year. When the final buzzer sounded to mark the end of the third period, the Isles all gathered around the center ice logo, raised their sticks and saluted the crowd back with a “Yes, Yes, Yes!” chant. That was such an incredible sight to witness. Seeing that made me think of the team doing that after a playoff victory in a couple of months on home ice. They are rolling over nearly every team they face with bulldozer-esque force.
Unfortunately, it was announced on Monday, Jan. 26 that Okposo will be out approximately six to eight weeks with an upper-body injury while on the verge of having a career season. He is second on the Islanders with 44 points in 46 games and third with 14 goals behind Captain John Tavares, who went down with a season-ending injury during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. The team needs to stay as resilient as they have been and not let the subtraction of Okposo get to their heads. That happened last year. The loss of their Captain affected their play the rest of last season. On a positive note, if he is out at most eight weeks, he still has the last week or two of the season to get back in the lineup.
All of the Isles’ success in this breakout season is due to every member on this team. They all bring something different to the table to contribute to wins, and most importantly, it reveals their depth. This is the year the young team is meshing and proving their growth to the rest of the league.
One asset to the Isles’ success this season is due in part to goaltender Jaroslav Halak, who was elected to the 2015 All-Star Game. Halak has been a dominant force in net this season. He is third in the NHL in wins with 26. The “Halak-ness Monster” has been a brick wall and consistent in the net–something the Isles have finally gained throughout past seasons of mediocre goaltending.
As always, Isles Captain John Tavares has been outstanding and has been the definition of “clutch,” putting the team on his back while scoring goals in crucial spots. His play has earned him a spot on the 2015 All-Star Team as well.
Isles forward Josh Bailey is finally heating up and playing consistently –something Isles fans, coaches and management have been waiting for for years.
Another bright spot of many for the Isles this season is the growth and development of forward Ryan Strome. Strome has become a crucial part of the power play and has become a playmaker as well. I have to give forward Brock Nelson a stick tap as well. Those two along with Anders Lee will be a key part of the Isles success for years to come and they will only continue to learn and improve the more experience they have.
Having forward Michael Grabner healthy and back in the lineup on the penalty kill is another key component. His speed and defense throws off opponents.
Similarly, forward Nikolay Kulemin has shown off his speed and short-handed skill as well, netting two goals on Monday, Jan. 19 against the Philadelphia Flyers in a 7-4 victory. Goal-scoring has been crucial to the team’s success as they are second in the League with an average of 3.17 goals per game.
Of course, I certainly have to give credit to the defense. I have said it before and I will again, defense wins championships. This season is the first time in a long time the Isles have had a great defensive core. The additions of veterans Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy have had a chain reaction down to the rest of the defensive core. I am crossing my fingers that General Manager Garth Snow can lock both of them up to long-term contracts. It just has not been a good trend with big-name players agreeing to play for the Isles, but then leaving the following year. Calvin de Haan has begun to develop into a key defenseman.
Last but not least, I am giving credit to the fourth-line. Former NHL head coach and current hockey analyst Don Cherry is as well. During one of his “Coach’s Corner” segments on Hockey Night in Canada, Cherry praised them, calling the Isles fourth-line consisting of Matt Martin, Cal Clutterbuck and Casey Cizikas “the toughest line in hockey.” Yes, that I can agree with. They are the sparkplug to the team’s aggressiveness.
Coming off of the All-Star break, the Isles defeated the New York Rangers 4-1 on Tuesday, Jan. 27. The Isles have won all three season matchups against the Rangers this season. Forward Mikhail Grabovski netted a beauty of a goal to take a 1-0 lead in the first period. The fourth-line contributed to a gritty goal.
Top opponents in the conference have not been a problem for the Isles this season.
There were questions going into the All-Star break whether or not the Isles will continue to keep up their strong play during the second half of the season.
The Isles currently sit atop the Metropolitan Division and next host the Boston Bruins Thursday, Jan. 29 at 7 p.m. Here’s to many more “Yes, yes, yes!” chants.