The Jackets wrapped up a four-game road trip on a sour note in Toronto, but they get right back to work on home ice Saturday against one of the best stories of the season’s first half, the New York Islanders. The Islanders are in the midst of a season-long seven game road trip that started off a bit bumpy, losing two straight games on the western leg of their trip in Edmonton and Vancouver before knocking off the Devils on Friday night. Still, it’s an Islanders team sitting in first place in the Metropolitan Division, one point ahead of the Penguins.
The Islanders got off to the best start in franchise history, pretty impressive for a team that put together one of the greatest dynasties in sports history with four straight Stanley Cups and 19 straight playoff series victories in the early 1980s. In the team’s final season in Nassau Coliseum, the Islanders are conjuring some of that magic once again with a young squad that jumped out to win 19 of its first 26 games.
Perhaps the biggest difference in the Islanders’ success this season compared to last, aside from a healthy John Tavares, is three key additions in the offseason. Jaroslav Halak was signed to finally bring stability to the crease, and he has done so this season. His 2.29 goals-against average and .914 save percentage are not spectacular, but they are dependable. In front of Halak, GM Garth Snow also made two trades right before the season to bring in defensemen Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy. Suddenly a weakness on the blue line is a strength, with Boychuk and Leddy combining for 10 goals and 38 points this season, complimenting the strong two-way play of young Travis Hamonic.
Lubomir Visnovsky’s injury troubles, as well as Boychuk’s, have not helped the back end. But they’ve held their own as the forwards get stronger, with Michael Grabner back in the lineup after missing the start of the year and potting two goals in his first seven games.
Despite being divisional foes, the Islanders and Blue Jackets haven’t met since last season. The Jackets shut out the Islanders at Nationwide Arena on Apr. 6, the first win in a 4-1-0 stretch to polish off the season. Sergei Bobrovsky made 31 saves to outduel Anders Nilsson, earning his fifth shutout of the season.
Almost as hot as Bobrovsky was the Jackets’ power play, which was 3-for-6 on the night. Boone Jenner and Jack Johnson scored power play goals in the first period and Ryan Murray added another in the second. Mark Letestu also scored for Columbus, his ninth goal of the season for a two-point night.
There’s a lot of promising young talent on the Islanders roster, and one of the brightest is center Brock Nelson. A first-round pick in 2010, Nelson is entering his second full season and already blowing away a rookie campaign that by all accounts was very strong. After scoring 14 goals and 26 points during his 72-game rookie season, Nelson already has 15 goals and 28 points through 41 games this year. Nelson raced out to one of the best starts in the league with six goals in his first nine games. That pace has obviously slowed, but Nelson is scoring at a consistent pace and has been sensational on the power play, his nine goals tied for second in the NHL.
The Blue Jackets were certainly glad to get Scott Hartnell back in the lineup after a broken finger cost him five games in December. Clearly, Hartnell was glad to be back as well, responding with two goals and six points in six games. Hartnell has meshed very well the past three games on a line with Nick Foligno and Ryan Johansen, particularly working down low in the offensive zone with Foligno in the cycle game. Hartnell’s physical play is opening up room for his line mates, part of the reason Johansen has scored in five straight games. Hartnell is also making good on the space Foligno has created for him, and has been active in getting the defense involved in the Jackets’ attack.
Flack for Back-to-Backs
The Blue Jackets will play the most back-to-backs in the league this season, 19 in total. That hasn’t been particularly good news for Columbus so far this year, as the Jackets are 2-6 so far in the second half of those back-to-back contests. Despite the tough results, the majority of those series were early in the season when the Jackets were injury depleted and not playing good hockey. They’ve only played one back-to-back since the start of December, and they won the tail end of that series on Sunday in Denver. The Islanders are 5-1 in the second of back-to-backs, winning those games by a combined score of 18-12. The Islanders are young and value their speed game, but they did look tired at times against New Jersey as perhaps their road trip begins to take its toll. Columbus will need to carry a physical edge through the first period to slow that run-and-gun style for a team that has scored the third-most goals in the first period this season.