Storming up behind the Habs in the Eastern Conference race with a 6-2-2 record in their last ten games are the New York Islanders, despite the loss of both Alexei Yashin and Mark Parrish for extended periods. This is a team that had a tougher first half of the season but, interestingly, since Yashin went down with injury, has pulled together in the full spirit of “team” and has started playing its best hockey of the year.
It’s a team led in the points column by rookie of the year candidate Trent Hunter, and also by heart and soul player Mike Peca. It has one of the best defence corps in hockey, despite the fact that some have played below expectations this year, and has a young goaltender taken first overall a couple of years back.
Here are some points to consider when watching the Isles:
Trent Hunter: Not only is he a rookie of the year candidate from the points aspect of things, but for a while he was actually carrying the team. He’s not the best skater in the world – far from it – but he knows where to go, how to get there, and who to hit if the way is blocked. If Michael Ryder is a revelation in Montreal, Hunter is the same on the Island coming from nowhere to be one of the cornerstones of this years edition.
Defence: With Adrian Aucoin, who has gobbled up to 40+ minutes in a game, Janne Niinimaa, one of the better two-way defenders in hockey, Roman Hamrlik, the guy everyone seems to want to trade for these days, and Kenny Jonsson, one of the best pure defenders in the NHL, the Islanders have a top four that can rival any club in hockey. Don’t underestimate these guys, they’ve got it all and could easily be top two defenders on almost any club in hockey.
Michael Peca: Everyone likes to say he’s over the hill and on the way down the slippery slide after the hit by Darcy Tucker in the playoffs two years ago. True, it took him a long time to recover and get himself back to normal, but what’s also true is that he’s finally there and is producing very well lately. By no means is he over the hill, he’s still probably top three in terms of defensive forwards in hockey. And that’s all before talking about his leadership abilities which are well known around the league. He’s a fireball and will make you pay.
Jason Blake and the PK: Overall the team is only half way up the ladder on the PK, but with Blake out there, it’s always a danger to score. There aren’t many faster guys in the game, and when you combine that with a monster work ethic, you have yourself a real catch. Blake has 16 goals and 34 points and he’s not the most talented guy around, he does it all with desire. Match him up with Kvasha or Peca and two of those rocks on defence and there could be serious danger for the powerplay unit. Now, they may not have scored much this year on the PK, but the potential is definitely there.
Rick DiPietro: For the longest time it was looking like Mad Mike (Milbury), the GM of the Islanders, had pulled yet another crazy move when he traded up in the draft in order to pick DiPietro. One of the best at handling the puck outside his net despite his age, he’s also finally worked himself into a really solid goaltender. While he had troubles with focus and technique early in his career, this year, particularly in the last month or so, he’s finally figured it out and has been carrying the load. In fact, when he was having troubles and Garth Snow was in net most nights, DiPietro actually *asked* to go to the minors for playing time. When was the last time you heard anyone say that?
Team Unity: When Yashin went down with the horrific gash on his arm reminiscent of the cut Audette received as a Hab, many thought the Islanders would flush down the toilet. Yashin had worked diligently on his game to become a far more rounded player and was leading the team all over the ice. Somehow, though, his injury has pulled the team together and they now perform much moiré cohesively than they ever did before. If the Habs play anything like they have the last two games, this is going to be an Islander blow-out, pure and simple.
Mariusz Czerkawski: While he may not be leading the team in points as he was earlier in the season, the Polish Prince is still playing some solid hockey and will no doubt be looking to play hard against the team that gave him away. He’s always been at his most comfortable on the Island, and if allowed, he’ll give a good show as to what he could have done in Montreal for those Hab fans tuned into the game.
A win against the Isles stretches us five points up on them heading into the All-Star break. Some might say that it doesn’t matter, since we’re trying to make the playoffs ahead of the ninth placed team, and not the eighth. There are two reasons this doesn’t wash: the more teams we keep between us and ninth, the more teams have to overtake us to make the playoffs; the seventh place team gets to face the winner of the Southeast division, either Tampa or Atlanta.
Good reasons for keeping our spot.