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Game Preview: Islanders @ Senators

by Dyan LeBourdais / New York Islanders
‘We’re working hard, staying positive and trying to do the little things right.’ That’s exactly what the New York Islanders players and coaches have been telling everyone all season. But now, the team’s camaraderie and belief in each other is starting to pay off. For this reason, the Islanders have gone on to tie their longest win streak this season – as they defeated the Buffalo Sabres on Sunday afternoon.

Three straight wins. That’s what they’ve got. And on Tuesday night they’ll be looking for their fourth when they take on the Ottawa Senators for the final time this season. After defeating the Senators just 11 days ago on home ice, Islanders interim head coach Jack Capuano knows exactly what his team will have to do to earn their next win.

“Looking towards Ottawa, they have some young talent that works extremely hard,” Capuano said. “They have some great players with (Sergei) Gonchar, (Chris) Campoli and (Erik) Karlsson on the back end. Those guys like to join the rush and get in the play.”

Capuano continued, “They’ve also got (Jason) Spezza and (Alex) Kovalev up front. They’re definitely a skilled team, an offensive team, and we’re going to have to be at our best to give ourselves a chance to win. But it starts with defense. If we defend well, that gives us a chance offensively.”

Frans Nielsen #51 of the New York Islanders skates against Jordan Staal #11 of the Pittsburgh Penguins on February 11, 2011 at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York. The Isles defeated the Pens 9-3. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
While they hope to keep that streak alive by defeating the Senators at Scotiabank Place, Islanders forward Kyle Okposo knows that it will be challenging. After an 11-game winless streak, the Senators have fallen to last place in the Eastern Conference standings. But that isn’t any reason to doubt their skill. Ottawa put an end to their winless streak Saturday night.

“They're a team that’s playing with nothing to lose right now,” Okposo said. “I saw their last game when they beat Edmonton (5-3). They’re a good hockey team. They have a lot of skill. We’re going to have to try to go in there and play a good road game. Then hopefully get a win.”

The Islanders know exactly what it’s like to be in Ottawa’s position because they’ve also found themselves there at times throughout this season. But since the Islanders have gone 5-2-0 in their last seven games and in the midst of a streak of their own, they’ve found a newfound confidence and scoring capabilities that have been missed.

“I think we’re really starting to come together,” Okposo said. “We’ve got a lot of guys who have a lot of respect for each other and that’s overflowing on the ice. It’s been a full team effort. Guys have been winning faceoffs and blocking shots and doing all the little things correct. So that’s really been contributing to our success.”

Capuano couldn’t agree more with Okposo. He said “it takes 20 guys to win a game” and called the Islanders recent success “a total team effort”.

“We came from a goal and a two goal deficit to come back and win (against Buffalo),” Capuano said. “Our guys are just showing a lot of resilience right now. They’re playing hard and they’re getting a lot of results. There’s a lot of emotion on our bench and we’ve been getting rewarded for our work ethic.”

And while the Senators have some firepower of their own, recently the Islanders have been extremely hot in the scoring department. They’ve put up 20 goals in their last three games and 32 goals in their last seven (even while being shutout in one contest).

“Grabs (Michael Grabner) is obviously having a tremendous year and he’s playing extremely well lately,” Okposo said about his linemate. “Mouls (Matt Moulson) and JT (John Tavares) have both been great, but you can’t forget PA (Parenteau) in the mix. He’s been terrific playing with those guys and setting those guys up. He’s played extremely well for us. Another guy that kind of gets overlooked is Frans (Nielsen, Okposo’s other linemate). Every night he’s consistently the same. He’s played so well for us. I love playing with him.”

Grabner’s performance and goal scoring abilities are an obvious part of the Islanders success, but the rookie has been strong in all aspects of his game. His plus/minus ranking has quickly risen to the best on the team with a +10. As a result, he has even been implemented on the penalty kill with his centerman Frans Nielsen.

“Those two guys have tremendous hockey sense,” Capuano said. “They read and react off one another extremely well and they’ve been very good on the penalty kill. Their shifts have been short but any time they get the chance to send the puck 200 feet, they’ll send it down the ice. And at the same time, any time they feel they can get a rush or they can catch our opponent on an outnumbered attack, they will push the pace on the penalty kill as well. It all stems from their work ethic right now and their hockey sense.”

The Islanders forwards may be doing their jobs, but the team’s defense has also been playing exceptionally well. Milan Jurcina and Ty Wishart, linemates in Sunday’s game, both recorded goals on the Islanders power play.

Nathan Lawson #52 of the New York Islanders plays goal against the Buffalo Sabres at HSBC Arena on January 21, 2011 in Buffalo, New York. New York won 5-2. (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)
“We’ve always talked about it in the last couple months, that we want to make sure that our defensemen activate,” Capuano said. “Whether it’s in the offensive zone on a cycle, we’re active on the blueline in the offensive zone or on the rush, making sure that if we can get an odd man rush with the help of our defensemen, we want to do that. That’s part of our game plan, which is no different than a lot of other teams. But to get some points from our blueline is huge and it gives us an added dimension to score more goals.”

The last line of defense is always the goaltender. Recently acquired netminder Al Montoya recorded his first win (in his first game) wearing an Islanders jersey on Sunday afternoon. But Nathan Lawson will likely return to the lineup since he has was taken off the injured reserve Monday morning.

“I didn’t really know what to expect when it happened,” Lawson said. “I was hoping it would be quicker (recovery), but it’s not something I want to mess around with. I feel great. I was really excited to get back on the ice (Monday) and finally take a full practice with the team.”

Lawson continued, “If I do (start Tuesday), I just have to try to play my best. And if I play, I expect to be a little jittery at first, but once I make a few early saves, I’ll be fine.”
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