First-place Islanders making last season in Nassau one to remember
After missing the playoffs seven times in nine seasons, the New York Islanders might finally be finding out what it’s like to be on the right side of the breaks.
Just past the midpoint in this surprising season, the Islanders have landed atop the Eastern Conference — ahead of Pittsburgh, Montreal and Detroit. In front of Tampa Bay and the rival New York Rangers.
It was only fitting that the Islanders reached the summit with a thorough 3-0 victory over the Rangers on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden — arguably the biggest stage in the NHL and certainly the largest in New York.
”We haven’t accomplished a whole lot yet,” captain John Tavares said. ”We expect to win against everyone we play against.
”I think anytime you beat the Rangers as an Islander, it’s a lot of fun.”
This was already setting up as a special year for the Islanders, who will be leaving Long Island and the Nassau Coliseum once the season is over and relocating to Brooklyn. Success on the ice has planted the seeds that perhaps nostalgia won’t be the only reason why this season is remembered and celebrated.
They won the Stanley Cup four times back in the 1980s. The Islanders know another championship would provide the perfect farewell to the Nassau Coliseum — the only home they have ever known.
”Our goal is always to win the Stanley Cup,” Tavares said.
The defending Eastern Conference champion Rangers were feted upon their return home from a three-game California sweep. Welcoming the Islanders only raised the hype, and the bright lights and attention didn’t rattle them.
The Islanders took the play to the Rangers, overwhelmed them in the second period, and finished the shutout in the third after driving goalie Henrik Lundqvist to the bench.
”It was a four-point game because they are catching up to us,” said Jaroslav Halak, who stopped 27 shots and earned his fourth shutout. ”The guys did a great job. Playing in Madison Square Garden isn’t easy, but we played our game.”
The Islanders (29-13-1) opened a seven-point lead over the Rangers, the fourth place team in the Metropolitan Division. The Islanders lead Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh by one point for the overall lead in the East.
”We haven’t wanted to get too high on our highs or too low on our lows,” defenseman Travis Hamonic said. ”We’ve done a good job this year rebounding from losses.”
Not only are they playing at the top of their game, having won three straight and five times during a seven-game road trip that ended Tuesday, the Islanders are getting good bounces.
With the game scoreless in the first period, the Rangers struck the goal post three times within seconds — first with a drive by All-Star Rick Nash and another by Derick Brassard that hit the right post before sailing across the crease and hitting the left one.
”Luck was on my side,” Halak said. ”It could have been a different game if they got the first one.”
Not only didn’t they get the first one, they didn’t get any past the goalie who is in his first season with the Islanders. It marked only the second time this season the Rangers were shut out, and it was the first time the Islanders did it at the Garden since Billy Smith posted another 3-0 win on Dec. 17, 1975.
”They had some chances,” Tavares said. ”We were playing on the road against a pretty good team. We did a pretty good job getting pucks to the net.”
They did that 32 times in two periods against Lundqvist, scoring all three goals against him in the second. Lundqvist watched the third from the bench as Cam Talbot took over and stopped all 12 shots he faced.
Rangers coach Alain Vigneault made the switch to try to change things for his team. Instead, the Islanders stuck to their game and finished off the big win.
”They’re a tough team to play against. They play the right way,” Nash said. ”They lock you in your own zone and they kind of drain all the momentum from your game.”
With 29 wins and 43 games under their belts, it is less surprising anytime the Islanders come out on top — regardless of the opponent. The schedule doesn’t get any easier. When the Islanders return home Friday, the high-powered Pittsburgh Penguins will be there waiting.
The Islanders are five wins shy of last season’s total with 39 games left.
”You go back to training camp and go over the things that are confidentially held in that room and what we wanted to accomplish,” coach Jack Capuano said. ”It’s about the character and comfort the guys have in one another, and up until this point how we have performed.
”We have a lot of hockey left.”