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Isles Improving and Still in the Mix

by Dyan LeBourdais / New York Islanders
It was a statement game. That’s how the New York Islanders were all referring to the 3-2 shootout loss to the New Jersey Devils on Sunday afternoon.

“It was one of those games that we knew going in, it was going to be like that,” Islanders interim head coach Jack Capuano said. “We have to be patient against a team like that and hopefully we get our opportunities. We got one (goal) off a forecheck and a turnover, but they’re very well coached and that’s the way they play the game.”

No doubt, the media attention would have been uproariously positive had the Islanders defeated the Devils (who have posted a 20-2-2 record in their last 24 games), but the thought that the Islanders forced the game to go six rounds in the shootout against arguably the hottest team in the National Hockey League, is a statement all in itself.

The Islanders ended a 14-game winless streak back in November with a 2-0 shutout win over the Devils, but the bad streak wasn’t quite over. They lost their next seven games before turning their season around.

Since then, it’s been a slow, but steady and noticeable improvement, which should have everyone on the Islanders roster as well as all the fans feeling pretty good. The team’s chances at making the playoffs this season are small, but the obstacles they’ve had to overcome will be a lesson in life, hard work, trust and camaraderie, among other things.

Matt Moulson #26 of the New York Islanders controls the puck in front of Patrik Elias #26 of the New Jersey Devils on March 6, 2011 at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York. (Photo by Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images)
“Our coaching staff makes in-game adjustments that I see them adjusting to and I see them executing and believing in what we’re trying to do,” Capuano said. “So if there’s anything to take away game-by-game here, it’s to have faith in what we’re trying to do and to play the way that we want to play. It’s our team identity to battle for one another. I think when you do that and you play together, you’re going to get results.”

Even though it’s been a rocky road, Capuano likes what he’s seen.

“I like that we don’t quit,” Capuano said. “We played 60 minutes of hockey last night. We got the goal with three or four minutes left in the game. All year the team has gone through so much adversity with the injuries that we have and guys in and out of the lineup. So it’s gratifying for our coaching staff when the guys have success because it has been a tough year for them.”

Of course, the regular season isn’t quite over. In the next five weeks, the Islanders will play 15 more games and will continue to push extremely hard, working to close the gap between themselves and the eighth playoff seed. Currently, they’re just 12 points away.

“For us, we know that we’re not out of the playoff race yet,” Capuano said. “Guys are playing extremely hard. I know these guys are going to continue to play hard. You never know what can happen and we are just going to keep battling until the end. The main focus right now is making sure as individuals and as a team, that we’re getting better everyday.”

Yes. It’s going to be a difficult stretch, facing the Devils two more times this month – as well as the New York Rangers – before closing out the season with a double header against the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Philadelphia Flyers.

Right now, the team concept stems from one day at a time, one game at a time, and the Islanders next opponent is the Toronto Maple Leafs. And the Leafs are just one team who’s also fighting for their playoff lives as their currently ranked 10th in the Eastern Conference and sit just five points behind the eighth seeded Buffalo Sabres.

“When you’re a desperate team, you’re playing extremely hard,” Capuano said. “They’re doing the right things and they’re playing together. When you see teams that start to do well, you look at (Ilya) Kovalchuk and the teams that have success, their best players are being their best players.”

Capuano continued, “Right now, Phil Kessel is playing pretty well. Things have picked up for him and he’s getting his team going a little bit. The same thing with Kovalchuk and (Patrik) Elias and those guys. So I think the Leafs are grinding for everything they’ve got. They’re still in the playoff hunt and they’re a young group that’s working hard.”

The last matchup between the two clubs this season will surely be difficult. The Islanders were able to defeat the Leafs in overtime back in October, but they lost both contests last month (5-3 and 2-1 respectively).

“We just have to match their intensity level,” Capuano said. “That’s what we have to concentrate on. We talk about things that are controllable, our work ethic, our desperation and our play are things that we can control. That’s what we have to do. We know that they’re going to be desperate and we’re in the same boat right now. We have to execute the game plan, but more importantly we have to match their intensity level.”

One thing is for certain, it will be good to have the Islanders healthy. Defenseman Milan Jurcina returned to the Islanders lineup against the Devils on Sunday, while veteran d-man Radek Martinek will be returning tomorrow from a lower body injury in time to face the Leafs.

Kevin Shattenkirk #12 of the St. Louis Blues gets stick checked by Josh Bailey #12 of the New York Islanders on March 5, 2011 at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York. (Photo by Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images)
“We haven’t had that in a while,” Capuano said. “It’s good to see our kids get an opportunity, but it will be nice to get those experienced guys back in the lineup. With Toronto, Boston and the road trip that we have ahead against some of the top teams in the league, it’s just good to have some of that experience back. Not only on the ice, but it’s good to have those guys back in the room and around the guys.”

Another line which has been coming through in key moments has been Isles center Josh Bailey with power forwards Blake Comeau and Matt Martin. Bailey scored the first game-tying goal against the Devils on Sunday, while Comeau scored the second, which sent the game into overtime.

“We’re going to keep them together for a little while here,” Capuano said. “Matty (Martin) gives them space because of his size and his physical presence. Blake (Comeau) and Josh (Bailey) have played together, they penalty kill together, so they kind of know where each other are. I think once we get that line to gel a little bit, they’ve only been together for two games, I think they’re going to chip in a little bit more offensively. Blake is a power forward along with Matty and Josh has great vision and play making skills.”

With Comeau’s goal, he joins Islanders sophomore John Tavares, his linemate PA Parenteau, rookie Michael Grabner, and defenseman Andrew MacDonald in capitalizing on their opportunities to establish new career-highs.

That’s just one-step towards a bright future, but if the players leave with one thing this season, Capuano said, “You want to make sure that they enjoyed the season, but if we don’t make it to the post season, it should be a disappointment. They have to realize, at this level, we’re still teaching, we’re still developing, but the bottom line is that we’ve got to win and get in the playoffs. You have to set your sights high and it’s everybody’s goal to win a Stanley Cup.”

Capuano continued, “There’s a lot that they can take away from this season. To me, that is the main thing. I know they’re going to work on their game in the off season and they’re going to get in shape and they’re going to work extremely hard to be the best player they can, but they have to realize that the ultimate goal is to win a Stanley Cup.”
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