By Jason Lockhart
The win yesterday against the Pittsburgh Penguins, who are fighting for the Atlantic Division title, seemed to give the Islanders an extra jump in their step and some renewed confidence at their practice today before they hopped on their bus to Philadelphia.
GAMES IN HAND
Mike Sillinger gave us his analysis of what it means to have games in hand on the teams they're fighting with to reach the playoffs.
"When you go on a road trip and only pick up one point, it's discouraging since there are only so many games left and we're all trying to accomplish the same thing. The good thing is we keep talking about these games in hand, but they're not games in hand unless you win them. We came back from the trip with those games still in hand. We're excited that we can still control our own destiny."
After a goal against the Penguins, the Ryan Smyth-Jason Blake-Randy Robitaille line, which has been intact, on and off, since Smyth's arrival on March 1st, appears to be finding its stride at the right time.
"They like to give and go," said Robitaille, who has 36 points on the season. "In the offensive zone, I'll be the guy driving to the net and trying to get them the puck as much as I can. Last night, Smitty made a good pass to Blakey, who put it in. We're still trying to find our rhythm, but we're getting there."
Added Blake: "I don't think Smitty and I have hit our stride yet. We're trying to talk through it and communicate with each other. Randy's been a great playmaker. He's fast, moves the puck well and is a heads up player. He's done a great job and we enjoy playing with him. Hopefully, we keep it going."
When the Islanders' front office added veteran leadership over the summer and throughout the year, they did it for exactly this time - the playoff push. The veteran leadership has been most evident during this final stretch. One of those leaders all season long as been Mike Sillinger, who has contributed significantly on and off the ice.
"The veterans in the locker room help keep things calm during the playoff drive," said Sillinger. "If you're a young team pressing to make the playoffs, you might go into a shell or try too hard. The normal tendency is to start pressing. If you have veteran guys in the room they help keep everyone's head in the right place."
While many people are keeping their eyes pealed to the scoreboard for March Madness, another NCAA Tournament is set to begin this weekend - Division I Ice Hockey.
With an Islanders team filled with Americana, there are a number of former collegiate players with some interest in the start of the 16-team Tournament beginning today.
Boston University: The Islanders boast four Terrier alums -- Rick DiPietro, Tom Poti, Freddy Meyer and Shawn Bates. The Terriers begin their title drive against Michigan State.
North Dakota: Jason Blake starred for three years at North Dakota before making the jump to the pros. North Dakota takes on Michigan, who claims Andy Hilbert as alum.
Miami of Ohio: Randy Robitaille spent two seasons with the Red Hawks, but since having kids hasn't spent too much time following his former team. They'll have a tough test against New Hampshire in Round One.
U- Maine: Mike Dunham was an NCAA Champion with the Maine Black Bears back in 1994 along with Garth Snow. Maine takes on St. Cloud in the opening round.
Hilbert spoke after practice about his run with the Wolverines in 2001 when they were stopped short by eventual champion, Boston College in the semifinals.
"We had a really good team that year," said Hilbert. "We might have been able to win had we not lost a couple of key guys the previous year to the NHL, including Mike Comrie. There were a bunch of guys who made it to the NHL on that team, like Jed Ortmeyer, Jeff Jillson, Mike Komisarek and Mike Cammalleri."
One Islander whose team didn't make the tourney this year is Sean Hill, who played for 2006 NCAA Champion, Wisconsin. Only three of his conference's teams made it to the final 16 this season - Minnesota, North Dakota and St. Cloud.
"I'm surprised to see only three WCHA teams in the tournament this year," said Hill. "A WCHA team has won the title five years in a row."
Hill went on to describe his experience winning the NCAA Championship in 1990.
"It was a great experience," said Hill. "It's so much different winning at that level. You're just a bunch of kids trying to have fun."