2002-04-06 / Sports

Are The Islanders For Real? : A Metro Hockey Update

By Andrei Petrovitch

By Andrei Petrovitch

Long Island is going ape!! Well, at least the segment of the population that follows the Islanders is. For the first time since 1994, there will be ice on the floor of Nassau Coliseum, and no; it won’t just be for the Ice Capades. The Islanders are, at press time, tied for sixth place in the NHL’s Eastern Conference with the New Jersey Devils and are headed for a playoff berth at the end of April.

There are many good reasons for Islander fans to be optimistic. With Alexei Yashin and Michael Peca, they finally have the dominant one-two punch at center ice that they have been lacking since the glory days of Pierre Turgeon and Ray Ferraro. They also have not two, but three high-caliber defensemen in Roman Hamrlik, Kenny Jonsson, and Adrian Aucoin. Add to the mix, players such as 20-goal scorer Marius Czerkawski, tough guy Steve Webb, checking center extraordinaire Claude Lapointe, ad Cup-winning goalie Chris Osgood, and the Isles seem to have all the makings of a contender. Right? Well, maybe. There are still a few nagging questions that need to be answered:

Question: Aren’t the Islanders deep enough, offensively, to match up with the other Eastern Conference heavyweights-namely, the Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins?

Answer: Well, yes and no. The Islanders have guys who can score; the issue is whether those guys can heat up at the right time. As I wrote in a previous column, the Stanley Cup is awarded in June and not October. Yes, Yashin has scored 30+goals this season. But does anybody remember Mark Parrish? Anybody? After threatening to score more than 50 goals early on, the occasional slumps and injury bugs that occur over the course of the season have left him with 30 goals. He has only scored 6 goals in the last 20 games. So much for the shiny MVP trophy that was practically destined for him during the first half.

The fact is, Yashin can’t do it alone. Thankfully for the team, Czerkawski is starting to find the back of the net. But Oleg Kvasha (10 goals in 64 games) and Brad Isbister (15 in 72 games) need to contribute. Complicating matters further for the Isles is Yashin’s reputation as being an offensive bust come playoff time. Now if Yashin can’t score- Whoa boy!

Question: But what could the team do? All the best offensive players (Billy Guerin, Tony Amonte, Teemu Selanne, etc.) were unavailable.

Answer: Who said the Islanders needed a superstar? Playoff veteran Cliff Ronning was available. Why didn’t Isles GM Mike Milbury make a pitch? Ronning would have been a great fit behind Yashin and Peca in the center-ice rotation. With the 1994 Canucks, he proved that he could score in high-pressure situations. He is also pretty handy at faceoffs. Forget about him now: the Nashville Predators traded him to the Los Angeles Kings.

Speaking of superstars, Milbury could have put in a decent bid to the Florida Panthers for Pavel Bure, who ended up going to the Rangers for practically nothing. Milbury’s failure to keep Bure out of the Ranger’s hands may not matter much now, but it could very well haunt them next season. Another player who could have helped the Isles’ playoff prospects was the former Dallas Stars’ Joe Nieuwendyk, but the former playoff MVP ended up being traded to the rival Devils.

Question: Okay, fine- Milbury blew it at the trade deadline. But playoff games are won with defense and goaltending. The Islanders are definitely strong enough in those two areas, right?

Answer: Well, kinda. The strong defense corps has battled injuries all year long, and it remains to be seen whether it can endure the bloody war of attrition known as the NHL playoff race. Trade deadline pickup Darren Van Impe will certainly help with his competent two-way play. But if the defense breaks down, guess what- you can blame Mike Milbury again. His failure to acquire a tough, imposing bodychecking blueliner like Lyle Odelein will eventually prove costly.

As far as goaltending is concerned, Chris Osgood is more than capable. But if he tires, slumps, or suffers an injury, the Isles’ ship is certainly sunk. The highly overrated Garth Snow is simply not the answer.

Question: At worse, can’t the Islanders defeat, say, the third-seeded Carolina Hurricanes in the first round?

Answer: Yes. But beyond that is anyone’s guess.

Question: Okay Wiseass, you’ve made your point. If you’re so smart, then tell us: what the hell does Carol Alt see in Alexei Yashin- besides, of course, the fact that he’s rich, handsome, famous, and wears a turtleneck when he plays?

Answer: Oh, C’mon! I can’t be expected to know everything! A bigger crime is the watering down of the sodas at Nassau Coliseum. But that, my friends, is another story for another time.

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