Break time for the Islanders officially ended at noon today when they returned to the ice at Islanders Iceworks for the first time since Sunday. Some players, such as Trent Hunter, traveled to sunny Florida to catch some rays with his family, while others, like Miroslav Satan, stayed on Long Island to rest and take care of his family.
But there was one theme amongst the players during their break. In the backs of their minds they knew the most crucial time of the regular season was about to begin the second half.
Coming into Friday's game against Atlanta, the Islanders sit in the middle of the pack with 48 points in the Eastern Conference, just two points behind Pittsburgh, Toronto and the Rangers, who all sit in the eighth spot. Even the 14th place Florida Panthers are only two points behind the Islanders and a mere four points out of a playoff spot.
"It's not just us fighting for the playoffs, it's a bunch of teams," said Randy Robitaille. "We have to make sure we're focused for every game because every point now is crucial. You can't say ˜We still have 35 games left, teams will start spreading out.' We've already played over 40 games and look how tight it is. Whether it's going into overtime or a shootout, those are big points."
The Islanders' post-All-Star break schedule doesn't start off lightly. They first travel to Atlanta, who is third in the Eastern Conference with 62 points. They then return home to play games against the Eastern Conference-leading Buffalo Sabres and then on Tuesday at home face the Detroit Red Wings, who are currently fourth in the Western Conference. The Islanders then return to the road to take on Atlanta again, before traveling to Montreal to play the Canadiens, who sit fourth in the East.
"We're coming into the most important part of the schedule," said Ted Nolan. "We don't step back into the season on an easy note. We just have to be prepared and go out there and play as best as we can."
When asked how he looks at approaching the stretch run towards the playoffs, Nolan replied: "Hockey isn't a 60-minute game. It's a one-shift-at-a-time game. We have to concentrate on one shift at a time, one period at a time and one game at a time. We focus on the now and not on what's happening 10 or 20 games from now."
Instead of worrying about the standings and the challenge that lies ahead, the players chose to focus on getting their own games together, since many of them hadn't been on the ice for a number of days.
"There were definitely some cobwebs," said Hunter. "You just try to push yourself to get back into game shape. It felt good to be back out there with the guys and get a good sweat."
Despite some cobwebs, the team had a strong skate, with Nolan trying to ease the team back into the grind of the NHL schedule.
"It was a good skate today," said Nolan. "They seemed to have an extra jump in their step. For the first practice back we like to keep it simple. Some of the skilled guys like to work on that extra little stickhandling move. We work on making simple passes, shooting the puck and getting to the net. If we do that, things should work out."
Nolan has chosen to stick with nearly the same lineup all season, and won't look to change anything for Friday's contest against Atlanta. The lines of Jason Blake-Alexei Yashin-Chris Simon, Viktor Kozlov-Randy Robitaille-Miroslav Satan, Andy Hilbert-Mike Sillinger-Trent Hunter and Richard Park-Shawn Bates-Arron Asham are expected to stay intact at least for the first game.
On defense, the Islanders are carrying seven defensemen, but with Bruno Gervais still day-to-day with an ankle injury, the remaining six blueliners Sean Hill, Brendan Witt, Tom Poti, Radek Martinek, Chris Campoli and Freddy Meyer will play Friday.
ED WESTFALL, the first captain in Islanders history, is looking forward to dropping the ceremonial opening faceoff when the Isles wear their Retro 1972 jerseys against Buffalo on Saturday night at the Coliseum. "It's an honor that I don't take lightly," said Westfall, who still lives and works on Long Island. "I appreciate Charles Wang and Islanders management reaching out to me and making the invitation. It's a big game against the Sabres for our team, so I hope I get the night started on the right note. I look forward to seeing the fans at the old arena." The man they call "18" drops the puck on Saturday around 7:05 pm...
While nothing is ever etched in stone, expect the Islanders to carry seven defensemen for a while. CHRIS CAMPOLI is back from Bridgeport after spending the NHL All-Star break with the Sound Tigers. Nolan said after practice that all seven dmen are key contributors, deserve to be here and he loves the depth and versatility on the blueline...
Other members of the Islanders' inaugural team from 1972-73 will be in the barn on Saturday, including underrated defenseman GERRY HART and gritty forwards Bobby Nystrom and Garry Howatt, who joined the team midseason from the Islanders' farm club in New Haven. or those at the game, expect ITV's C.J. Papa to interview Hart and company. In In addition, 1972-73 Islander Jean Potvin will be part of the FSN broadcast...
If you haven't already, go to Islanders TV and watch the 7-minute feature on the fundraiser in Hampton Bays for PATRICK KELLY. We dare you to watch it without shedding a tear. Also on ITV: look for Jason Blake's "Dallas Diary." All week long ITV gave you glimpses into his All-Star week, but coming up this weekend they will have a 5-minute diary, including great behind-the-scenes video of Jason and his family that he shot with his own camcorder.
If you haven't heard just kidding! -- the NYI Havoc Energy Zone is open for Saturday's game against the Sabres. $19 student tix go on sale beginning at 5:30 pm, but arrive early to get the best available seats. There were some rumblings around the office today that general manager GARTH SNOW wanted visit the line during the afternoon to thank the young fans for giving up a big part of their day to wait on line for tickets to the game.