New arrivals Zhitnik, Satan star in hockey's return to Long Island
By Francis Rizzo III
Plenty had changed since the last time the New York Islanders last took the Nassau Coliseum ice, including many of the names and faces. But the most important change was the result, as the Islanders opened the preseason with a 5-1 win against the Rangers, behind two goals from Alexei Zhitnik and a pair of assists from Miroslav Satan.
Playing for the first time since April 2004, both teams were in for a new hockey experience, with a revamped rule book, tighter officiating and a host of new faces on both sides of the ice. The only thing that was certain is that there would be plenty of energy in the air as the two New York neighbors renewed their rivalry.
Just 35 seconds into the game, the effects of the NHL's new crackdown on interference were felt as a hooking penalty on Alexei Yashin quickly led to a point on the board. Playing his first game with the captain's "C" on his sweater, Yashin fired a rocket over Kevin Weekes' glove hand for a powerplay tally less than three minutes into the game.
The goal was followed by two more, in quick succession, as the Islanders took control of the game. Island newcomer Alexei Zhitnik made a good first impression on the locals, putting away a pair of goals, one on a slapper from the top of the zone, and the other on a smooth feed from rookie Rob Nilsson, giving the home team three goals on their first four shots.
The penalty trend continued throughout the first period, with the Islanders finding themselves on the short end of several 5-on-3 powerplays. Though the Rangers would connect once, the Islanders came back to pick up their third man-up goal of the period, when a Brent Sopel feed to Mike York was sent cross-ice to Jason Blake, who buried it behind Weekes. By the time he left the ice, Weekes had given up four goals on 17 shots.
His replacement, European rookie Henrik Lundqvist, had a good start to his NHL career, stopping the first 12 shots he faced, until Islanders rookie blueliner Chris Campoli came streaking into the zone, picked up a pass and slid it past the goalie to the far side of the net for the only score of the third period.
Having adjusted to the new rules a bit, the players skated a smoother second period, cutting down the penalties from eight to just four. Neither team managed a goal, but the stanza ended with a flurry of activity, as Garth Snow, taking over in the second half of the game, turned away a flurry of attempts in the closing minute, including a highlight-reel save on Jaromir Jagr's blast with 8/10 of a second remaining.
As with all preseason games this year, Tuesday's match ended with an exhibition shoot-out. Michael Nylander beat Garth Snow with a backhand over his catching glove to start the shootout. A five-hole attempt by Yashin was stoned by Lundqvist in the second go-round, before Straka went low, stick-side and beat Snow, to make it 2-0 Rangers. In the final shot, the puck slid off Satan's stick to give the shootout win to the Rangers.
GOAL OF THE NIGHT: It wasn't the game-winner, but when you haven't seen Islanders hockey in 16 months, the first goal of a new era is something special. That it was Alexei Yashin's first goal as captain of the Islanders makes it all the more sweeter, and to do it at home, against the rival Rangers makes it a lock for goal of the game. Unleashing the wicked slapshot from the wing that has been his trademark, Yashin signaled the return of the Islanders in a big way.
HITTER OF THE NIGHT: The league's new laws seemed to slightly cut down the rough stuff, but in an Islanders-Rangers tilt, there's bound to be a few hits thrown. Though challenged by Petteri Nokelainen's physical first game, which saw him drop Garth Murray with a hard check late in the game, Trent Hunter proved to be the most aggressive Islander on the ice, putting a couple of Rangers to the ice along the boards. Cementing his power forward reputation, about eight minutes into the second period, Hunter plastered Ryan Hollweg in the corner of the Islanders' zone, breaking up a cycling play down low.
"DINGER" OF THE NIGHT: The lack of a red-line rule set-up a one-on-one chance for Martin Straka eight minutes into the first, as he broke between two defensemen and drove to the Islanders' net. Coming out high on the crease to challenge the shooter, DiPietro didn't leave the Rangers wing much room, and when he tried to go high to the glove side, the puck ricocheted off the pipe. DiPietro experienced a bit of deja vu a few minutes later when Michael Nylander split the D again and was forced to go wide by DiPietro. His night ended with one goal allowed on 15 shots.
UNSUNG HERO: Mike York made an effective debut for the Islanders, picking up an assist, while eating up over four minutes of penalty-killing duty. Though he didn't put a shot on net, he was tireless along the boards and made a good compliment playing on the Islanders' third line with Jason Blake and Trent Hunter, forming a trio that never stops hustling.
IN THE ZONE: When the NHL handed down new puck-handling rules for goaltenders, restricting them to a trapezoid behind the net, most in the NHL questioned how it would affect Rick DiPietro's play. After watching his first game of the preseason, the answer would be "not much." Outside of an early miscue that gave the crowd a scare, his puck-handling looked well-acclimated to the changes, as he stopped the puck before it reached the goalline, and even picked up an assist.
BEGINNERS' LUCK: The new arrivals on Long Island made their presence known early, combining for three goals and eight points in the game. Satan and Zhinik were particularly effective, picking up a pair of points each. There wasn't a new player who didn't make himself obvious to the Coliseum crowd.
PUCK WIZARDS: With the new rules opening up the ice and a bigger offensive zone, young Islanders Robert Nilsson and Mattias Weinhandl are players to watch when they are handling the puck. At several points during the game they deked the Rangers with slick stick moves, including some puck tucks that set up some sweet scoring chances. In the end, Nilsson had a pair of helpers, while Weinhandl had two shots on goal and some quality opportunities.
ICE CHIPS: Chris Campoli, Bruno Gervais, Brad Lukowich, Robert Nilsson, Petteri Nokelainen, Miroslav Satan, Brent Sopel, Mike York and Alexei Zhitnik all made their Islander debuts... Three players, York, Kevin Weekes and Martin Straka, became unofficial members of the "New York, New York" club, having played for both the Islanders and Rangers... Tuesday's game was the start of a preseason schedule that will see the Islanders play seven games in 10 nights, including a match-up with the Flyers, Wednesday night in Trenton, NJ.
(21) Robert Nilsson - (79) Alexei Yashin - (81) Miroslav Satan
(37) Mark Parrish - (12) Oleg Kvasha - (11) Mattias Weinhandl
(16) Mike York - (55) Jason Blake - (7) Trent Hunter
(10) Sean Bergenheim - (29) Petteri Nokelainen - (47) Justin Papineau
(44) Janne Niinimaa - (3) Brent Sopel
(2) Chris Campoli - (6) Bruno Gervais
(77) Alexei Zhitnik - (25) Brad Lukowich
(39) Rick DiPietro
(30) Garth Snow
COACH STIRLING'S POST-GAME COMMENTS
Head coach Steve Stirling offered his take on the Islanders' victory over the Rangers.
"It was good to go against another color than ourselves in a game. It was good to play a game where the new rules apply. We were sloppy at times, but we expected that to be the case. Overall, it was a good start. We wanted to come out and get a win and tell people 'we're back."
On the many power play opportunities the Islanders enjoyed:
"We were able to take advantage of the early power plays and get a lead, which is always nice. We didn't execute quite as well as we would like, but we were able to move the puck around and get some really good chances."
On the team's speed and quickness:
"This is a different team, no question. We have speed through the mid-zone. Because of that space and speed, we are able to get into the (offensive) zone."
On the play of new acquisition Mike York:
"He is not flashy; he does all the things a smart player does. If I had to pick one player, I'd say it was him (that was most impressive)."
On the turnout of the fans:
"They gave us a good reception coming out, and we were able to score a couple of goals early to get them excited. It's nice that they received us so well."
On Alexei Yashin's first period power play goal:
"It was big for him. We want him to shoot the puck. I talked to him in training camp about pulling the trigger. He's trying to get chemistry with Miroslav Satan, and I think tonight you saw the best of his shot."
On the performance of 2003 first round pick Robert Nilsson:
"He's a very talented kid. The biggest adjustment he's gradually making is to play away from the puck. His other big adjustment is that he is so talented, he'll try to do too much, but he needs to pick his spots. He has a chance to be great."