The Islanders practiced at Nassau Coliseum Thursday before departing for their first road trip of the season, a two-game test at Chicago and Nashville on back-to-back nights.
There’s no downplaying how important Friday’s tilt with the Blackhawks is to an Islanders team trying to see where they stand this early in the season.
“Huge test,” head coach Jack Capuano said of the Chicago game. “We're playing the Stanley Cup champs and they're champs for a reason. They do a lot of things right. Offensively, they're the best team in the league to me as far as the skill level they have. They activate their D. You talk about a unit of five - it's like they have five forwards on the ice the way they play in the offensive zone with their cycling and getting involved off the rush. We have to make sure that we have good awareness in our own end and goaltending will be key tomorrow night.”
The Blackhawks are 1-1-1 this season after losing 3-2 Wednesday at St. Louis. United Center has proven to be a tough barn for visiting teams: The Blackhawks are 123-46-22 at home since the 2008-09 season.
Defenseman Travis Hamonic doesn’t anticipate the raucous Chicago atmosphere changing the Islanders approach Friday.
“We’ve played some good teams so far to start the season, and going into their building this early on in the year is going to be a test,” Hamonic said. “If you want to be one of those elite teams in the league, you’ve got to learn to play against them and beat them, so we’re excited for the challenge.”
Islanders captain John Tavares believes that the experience of playing in the postseason last spring in loud buildings on Long Island and Pittsburgh will help the Islanders when they take the ice at the “Madhouse on Madison.”
“It’s a great opportunity for our team to grow and challenge ourselves again,” Tavares said. “Playing against a great team like Pittsburgh in the playoffs last year was a great challenge. We really stepped up and went at them and took in what the playoffs are about. I think we have to go in tomorrow and have a similar mindset that we can compete with any team in the league. We can’t be watching them - we’ve got to focus on our play and not make it easy on them.”
After watching video on the upcoming opponent, Hamonic added that the Islanders will need a big effort up and down the lineup to leave Illinois Friday night with two points.
“They’re a quick team with a lot of skill,” Hamonic said. “Their D corps skates as well as anyone in the league and they have good goaltending. So they’re a pretty deep squad. They definitely like to hold on to the puck. For us, it’s important that we defend well. When we have our opportunities to bear down, we’re going to have to take advantage.”
In the grand scheme of things, the Islanders are hoping to accomplish the same thing the Blackhawks have recently: rebuild from the ground up, compete every season and win the Stanley Cup. For the last five seasons, Chicago has been captained by 25-year-old Jonathan Toews, a center known for his lead-by-example attitude and businesslike approach to the game, and they’ve lifted the Cup twice in that span.
It’s not hard to find similar qualities in Tavares. The Islanders captain says he has a limited relationship with Toews (the two have the same agent, and have both participated in international tournaments with Team Canada), but is familiar with his resume.
“He’s obviously a great player and he’s done some incredible things his first few years in the league, winning a couple of Stanley Cups as a captain, so that’s pretty special,” Tavares said. “He’s got a strong presence about him and is a very serious guy, very determined. I think I can be like that at times as well. Obviously, he leads by example in a lot of ways because he’s such a talented player.”
Friday’s tilt is the first Central Time Zone matchup for the Islanders this season. The game can be found on MSG PLUS, 88.7 FM WRHU or 103.9 FM WRCN, beginning at 8:00 ET.