For the first time in six years, the New York Islanders are in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The 2012-13 campaign was truly a tale of two seasons for the Islanders. It began with the delayed arrival of defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky, who first tried to block his trade from the Anaheim Ducks last summer then, after the deal was upheld, didn't play his first game with New York until Feb. 9 as he attended to his ill son in Slovakia.
Visnovsky's absence, combined with subpar goaltending from the tandem of Evgeni Nabokov and Rick DiPietro, played big roles in what was a rough start for the Islanders, particularly on home ice. Some may have believed another lottery pick was in the cards after what transpired Feb. 18, when New York suffered a 7-0 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
Slowly but surely, the Islanders began to solidify things in their back end. They made some tweaks to their lineup and started to demonstrate an ability to protect a third-period lead, something they'd been unable to do in seasons past. Once the calendar turned to March, the Islanders really started to turn things around and finished the month with a record of 8-5-1.
April has been one of the most dominant months the Islanders have enjoyed in years. With Tuesday's 4-3 shootout loss against the Carolina Hurricanes, the Islanders clinched a playoff berth and improved to 8-0-3 this month. They are in sixth place in the Eastern Conference.
Here's a look at five of the biggest reasons the Islanders will take part in the postseason for the first time since 2007:
1. John Tavares has become a superstar: It remains to be seen if the No. 1 pick from the 2009 NHL Draft will be a finalist for the Hart Trophy, but it's hard to imagine New York being anywhere near playoff position without the efforts of its top center. The 22-year-old has put this franchise back on the map and is averaging a point per game for the Islanders, with 27 goals and 19 assists in 46 contests. Tavares is the type of player who always wants to be the best one on the ice. These days, he usually is.
2. Evgeni Nabokov's second half: The Islanders' veteran goaltender struggled during the first half, allowing three or more goals in 17 of his first 26 appearances. The second half, though, has been a different story. Nabokov, 37, enjoyed a stretch when he allowed two or fewer goals in eight straight starts, during which time New York went 5-1-2. His presence on and off the ice has paid huge dividends for a club that desperately needed some stability between the pipes.
3. Garth Snow's waiver claims: They weren't as splashy as when the general manager claimed Michael Grabner from the Florida Panthers in the fall of 2010, but Snow added much-needed depth via the waiver wire days before the season began, particularly on the blue line. Brian Strait, waived by the Pittsburgh Penguins, was solid before suffering an ankle injury Feb. 18. His absence opened the door for Thomas Hickey (waived by the Los Angeles Kings), the fourth pick of the 2007 NHL Draft who has emerged into a steady presence on the blue line and is a plus-9 in 38 games. Forward Keith Aucoin, waived by the Toronto Maple Leafs, provided some offense early and has been a nice addition to the dressing room.
4. Secondary scoring: The Islanders relied too much on their top line in recent seasons, which had to change if they were going to find their way back to the postseason. The first line of Tavares, Matt Moulson and Brad Boyes has put up solid numbers, but the second line of Frans Nielsen, Josh Bailey and Kyle Okposo has arguably been the club's top trio over the past month. Bailey, who didn't appear in his first game until Feb. 9 due to an injury, has 11 goals in 36 contests. Okposo, who got off to a slow start, has at least a point in eight of the past 11 games. Nielsen, a solid two-way center, ranks fourth on the team in scoring with 29 points in 46 games. Not lost in the shuffle is Grabner; the speedy wing has chipped in with 16 goals. Fourth liners Colin McDonald and Casey Cizikas have contributed on both ends of the ice, a nice change of pace after last season's fourth line did very little offensively.
5. Road warriors: How did the Islanders make it after that rough start at home? Because they've been consistently good on the road. After Tuesday's shootout loss at Carolina, New York is 2-0-1 on its season-ending, five-game trip and have a road record of 14-5-3. Only the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins have won more games on the road than the Islanders this season.
Follow Brian Compton on Twitter: @BComptonNHL
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