For three guys who had never played together in a regular-season game, Mike Comrie
, Ruslan Fedotenko
and Bill Guerin
sure looked like they’d been linemates forever.
The New York Islanders signed the three newcomers after losing Ryan Smyth, Jason Blake and Viktor Kozlov – and the 101 goals they scored last season – to free agency last summer. Coach Ted Nolan put the trio together at the start of training camp, and they clicked.
The proof came in the Isles’ regular-season opener Friday night, when the threesome combined for 10 points to lead their new team to a 6-4 victory in Buffalo.
Comrie, who went to the Stanley Cup Final with Ottawa last spring, led the way with two goals and two assists. Fedotenko, who got the Cup-winning goal with Tampa Bay in 2004, had a goal and two assists, and Guerin, who won a ring with New Jersey in 1995, had three assists. With his front line ravaged, Nolan put all three newcomers on the same unit.
Talk about instant chemistry.
"We've been together since the first day of camp, so there aren't excuses about gelling," Comrie said of his new linemates. "You always want to start off strong, but there's some things we can improve on as a team."
The play of the Isles’ new top line quickly made summer’s free-agent losses seem like ancient history.
"We're very proud of the players that we have and we don't want to talk too much about the people that left," Nolan said. "We want to talk about the people that are here."
Another free-agent acquisition, Josef Vasicek – who helped Carolina to the 2006 Cup – also scored in his Islander debut. Chris Campoli and Trent Hunter added power-play goals as the Islanders won their opener for the first time since 2001 and only the second time in their last 12 tries.
The Comrie-Fedotenko-Guerin unit’s opening-night success was a carryover from the preseason, when the trio combined for six goals and 14 points in three games – all victories. "When you lose players like Blake and Smyth, you have to replace them with good solid NHL guys, and we did that," center Mike Sillinger said. "To get these guys going, it was huge for our team."
Buffalo hoisted its Presidents Trophy banner before the game and came out strong, grabbing leads of 1-0 and 2-1. Fedotenko and Campoli scored power-play goals 34 seconds apart to put the Islanders in front before Drew Stafford capped the wild first period by making it 3-3 at 18:19.
Comrie sandwiched his two goals around a breakaway goal by Thomas Vanek in the second period, putting the Islanders ahead to stay when he scored on a breakaway at 16:04. Hunter’s third-period goal capped a perfect 3-for-3 performance on the power play by the Islanders.
"I thought that first period they took it to us, but then we got better and better," Nolan said. "What I really liked about the second and third periods was the maturity of our team. They really composed themselves as the game progressed."
The Sabres weren’t untouched by free agency – they lost their top two centers, Daniel Briere and Chris Drury. But it was Buffalo’s defense, not the offense, that looked out of synch.
"The defensive zone seemed chaotic," said goaltender Ryan Miller, who was hung out to dry on the Islanders six goals. "We were a little overanxious."
The Sabres, who eliminated the Islanders in the first round of last spring’s playoffs, will try to spoil the Isles’ home opener when the teams meet again on Saturday night.