2005-12-16 / Sports

State of the Islanders: Starting Slow But Picking Things Up

By Brian Bohl

Uniondale, NY—Inside the Islanders’ locker room, Alexi Yashin took off his pads, stuffing them in a team equipment bag before heading into the training room. His face drenched in sweat, his expression pleasant but cautious. The captain just came off a productive night in the team’s 3-2 victory over the Edmonton Oilers, scoring the first goal of a shootout to set up Trent Hunter’s game winner.

It had been 27 days since the last time the Islanders won at home, but for Yashin and company, the significance of the victory extended beyond pleasing the Nassau Coliseum crowd. For the first time this season, the Islanders are playing well over a stretch of games. It started with a win in Detroit last week, a mild upset that propelled the team to a victory in St. Louis and a shootout loss to Columbus to end the three game road trip. New York has picked up seven out of a possible eight points in their last four contests.

With four of the next five games coming at home, Yashin feels this is a chance to build momentum and take advantage of an atmosphere that has been a big advantage to the club in the past.

“We didn’t play well the last few homes games, so it is important to go out and play with confidence,” he said. “We built some character, and it is just a matter of us keeping focus and pushing until we get something going.”

Despite not adding to the scoresheet until the extra frame, head coach Steve Stirling praised the work of his All-Star center, claiming Yashin was valuable in other facets of the game. He quietly blocked two shots while winning 10 of his 15 faceoffs in a game that was tightly contested the whole way through. “He might be our best shootout guy,” said Stirling. “He hit three posts, and sooner or later you know they will go in. That first goal in the shootout is always so important.”

The coach hopes those shots hit the net in the upcoming games. Minnesota and Colorado visit here this week before the Islanders head to Toronto for a big game on Monday. Both clubs are separated by only one point the standings, with New York having one game in hand and trailing the Maple Leafs for the eight and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference heading into Sunday.

The stretch of games also includes a home bout with division rival New Jersey, meaning goalie Rick DiPietro will have to continue to play at a high level to help out a defense that has struggled at times to maintain leads. With his bright new pads and aggressive play, the southpaw has helped erase sluggish starts and aided in killing the numerous penalties his team is still taking. He stopped 27 shots and two attempts in the shootout over Edmonton, a feat almost as impressive as his one goal performance against the Red Wings a week ago.

“When Rick’s hot like that, we win games,” said Yashin. “It helps to make us play more relaxed. He makes saves so we can concentrate on our offense.”

Before the NHL’s two week Olympic break, the Islanders will play an average of three games a week with a slew of elite opponents. New York surrendered six goals to Ottawa twice already this season, meaning they will have to improve their play to have a chance against the league’s best team when they come to town next week. The surprising first-place Rangers also are on the docket. There is no reprieve in January either, as Western Conference powers Calgary and Vancouver along with defending Stanly-Cup champion Tampa Bay. “Tough opponents can be a blessing in disguise,” said Stirling. “When you’re playing the best teams, you need to be at the top of your game or you’ll get embarrassed. It will be a good test for us.”

The best way to get momentum for the difficult road ahead would be to hold on to late leads. Less than three months in, the Islanders have already engaged in more shootouts than Doc Holiday. Five games have already been decided by the breakaway contest, and Hunter says it would be better to pick up the victory in regulation and not leave it to chance.

“It’s exciting for the fans, and it also keeps the players on our toe,” he said. “Those extra points are so important when it comes to the end of the year and playoff (positioning).”

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