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.
Staying in sole possession of that spot means defeating the Penguins at Nassau Coliseum on Friday night in what’s turned out to be an unexpected showdown.
It was only fitting the Islanders (29-13-1) 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 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 in the 1980s. The Islanders know another championship would provide the perfect farewell to Nassau Coliseum – the only home they have ever known.
”Our goal is always to win the Stanley Cup,” Tavares said.
The Islanders opened a seven-point lead over the Rangers, the fourth place team in the Metropolitan Division, and jumped one point ahead of Pittsburgh (26-10-6) for first.
”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.”
The Islanders stuck to their game against the Rangers and finished off the big win.
”They’re a tough team to play against. They play the right way,” Rangers star Rick Nash said. ”They lock you in your own zone and they kind of drain all the momentum from your game.”
The Islanders are five wins shy of last season’s total with 39 games left, but supplanting the Penguins as the top team in the division won’t be easy. Seeking a third consecutive division title, Pittsburgh has overcome a rash of health issues – including the mumps – and a subpar (by his standards) season from star Sidney Crosby, winning two in a row and four of six to stay in contention.
”It hasn’t been easy but to everybody’s credit they’ve done what they had to do,” general manager Jim Rutherford said.
The Penguins’ newfound emphasis on defense under first-year coach Mike Johnston has paid dividends. Pittsburgh is allowing just 2.25 non-shootout goals per game.
Plus, Crosby hardly looked like a guy struggling to find his game in a 7-2 win over Minnesota on Tuesday, collecting three assists and putting together a handful of sublimely spectacular dashes to the net.
"In the whole scheme of things it’s more about how you’re playing and making sure the chances are there and everyone is contributing,” Crosby said. ”That goes further than anything.”
Pittsburgh has had 24 players score goals this season – most in the league.
The Islanders swept a home-and-home series with the Penguins on Nov. 21 and 22 after the Penguins took the first meeting of the season 3-1 on Oct. 18. Pittsburgh had won four in a row at Nassau Coliseum before the 4-1 loss Nov. 22.
Crosby’s 25 goals, 60 assists and 85 points versus the Islanders, coming in 48 games, are his highest totals against any opponent. He didn’t record a point in the past two meetings, however, which matches a career high in the series.