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Game Preview: Islanders vs. Panthers

by Dyan LeBourdais / New York Islanders
The New York Islanders have won seven of their last 10 games, posting a 7-3-0 record through the month of February (22-30-7 overall). They’ve breached the 50 point mark in the standings and are looking ahead towards their next opponent, the Florida Panthers. The Islanders are currently 13 points out of playoff contention, but when you consider how hot they’ve been playing, the team has no reason to rule out a playoff run this season.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Islanders defenseman Travis Hamonic said about the team’s recent bout of success. “Winning is contagious. We have a great feeling in this locker room and we just want to keep it going. We want to win as many hockey games as we possibly can and I think we’re really starting to execute the coaches’ game plan night in and night out. We’re just trying to be a consistent team right now.”
As a result, the Isles are playing every game like it’s the most important game of their career.

Justin Williams #14 of the Los Angeles Kings and Travis Hamonic #36 of the New York Islanders battle for the puck on February 19, 2011 at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York. Islanders defeat the Kings 3-0. (Photo by Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images)
“This next game against Florida is the biggest game of the year,” Hamonic said. “We’re going to take it one at a time, but we’re going to go out there, have fun, play as a team and try to get results that we want. When you play that way and you’re having fun, a lot of good things happen.”

Exemplified by Hamonic, the Isles young core truly believe in one another. They want to win and they know that when they play their best, two points are extremely possible.
“You see some of these teams coming in that are playing really well and they’re some of the top teams in the league,” Hamonic said. “We really want to be able to play off of that standard and try to beat them. Obviously, there have been some situations where we have been (able to defeat them). We have a great group of guys in here, a very talented team and we’ve played really well as of late. We just want to make sure we keep it going.”
Florida has found themselves in a very similar situation to the Isles. The difference (in the standings) between the Islanders and the Panthers at this moment, are just six points. That’s three regulation wins. Thus, the Isles really want to take advantage of this four point swing and close the gap so when the puck drops on Monday afternoon at Nassau Coliseum, Islanders interim head coach Jack Capuano said there is no reason to take the game lightly.

“We’ve got ourselves back into games where we need to be,” Capuano said. “That’s why now the importance of 60 minutes is crucial. There’s no explanation for what happened in the first 20 minutes against Boston. Every game, when the points are on the line, you can’t have that happen. We just have to make sure we understand the importance of the game and work hard every single shift when you’re out there because five seconds can cost you the game.”
Despite the one game against Boston, Capuano has expressed he’s liked what he’s seen from his team in recent weeks. Come Monday afternoon, he hopes to see a lot of the same type of plays, especially decisions his players have been making with the puck. But his young defenseman attributes the team’s success to their good starts.
“That’s the key because the first couple shifts set the tone for the game and I think we’ve done a really good job of responding when the other team has scored a goal,” Hamonic said. “We’ve done a good job of stopping and pushing back. That’s something we really wanted to focus on and really just sustain pressure throughout the game, get a lot of pucks to the net and play in their zone, more than they play in ours.”

Thus, the wins can, and most often are, attributed to a full team effort. But winning ways are also illuminated by bright spots and sparks of excellence. And in many ways, Michael Grabner has been that guy for the Isles this past month. He’s grown into his rhythm, started to feel comfortable, and has excelled in all areas out on the ice.

Frans Nielsen #51 of the New York Islanders gets past Anze Kopitar #11 of the Los Angeles Kings on February 19, 2011 at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York. Islanders defeat the Kings 3-0. (Photo by Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images)
While Grabner has been scoring goals and generating offense with unparalleled speed, his linemate Frans Nielsen has been there with him, making plays and delivering the puck to the winger at crucial times.
“To me, he’s one of the better players I’ve coached,” Capuano said about Nielsen. “He does all the little things right. There’s a reason why he’s a plus player year in and year out. I don’t think it’s a stretch to mention him with some of the top guys in the league. He makes high percentage plays, he’s got great discipline, great decision making and that’s what makes him special.”
Grabner and Nielsen have been playing well at even strength, but their roles may be even more crucial on the penalty kill. They step in shooting lanes, steal pucks, get one step ahead of their opponent and find themselves sprung on breakaways through the offensive zone – scoring goals –even though they’re playing shorthanded.

“I’ve seen Frans (Nielsen) now for a while,” Capuano said. “He set a record for most shorthanded goals in a season in Bridgeport, so I’ve seen what he can do. The other guy (Grabner) is playing pretty good right now. He’s playing to his strength, which is his speed. Frans is an intelligent hockey player. He understands where Grabs (Grabner) is now. He’s putting pucks into areas where Michael (Grabner) can skate on to them.”
But for things like that to happen, team defense has to be strong as well. That’s why you can’t overlook Islanders defensemen Travis Hamonic and Andrew MacDonald, who were both on the ice for Nielsen’s fifth shorthanded goal of the season on Saturday night.
“Their gap has been good,” Capuano said about his top d-pairing. “Their communication has been great. They really utilize their sticks. When you’re playing against teams’ top lines, the less you play in your own end, the better off you are. When they do have offensive zone time, they’re on the right side of the puck.”
Capuano has yet to make the final decision on who will start in net Monday afternoon.
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