UNIONDALE, N.Y. – Twelve months ago, the New York Islanders were entering December with an 8-15-4 record and no realistic chance at a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Their confidence was as low as their last-place standing in the Metropolitan Division.
Fast forward a year and the Islanders are bursting with confidence as they prepare for the final month of 2014. The gloom and doom of the previous season has been replaced by the confident air of a team that expects to win every night.
That confidence was on display Saturday when the Islanders survived a third-period barrage by the New Jersey Devils and left a sold-out Nassau Coliseum with a 3-1 victory that capped off a month in which the Islanders went 11-3-0, the best November for the Islanders in 34 years. Instead of beginning December looking up at the rest of the division, they'll start the new month with a 17-7-0 record and 34 points, giving them the same amount of points as the first-place Pittsburgh Penguins, who have a game in hand. The 17 wins are half of last season's total.
"It's a different team," coach Jack Capuano said. "It's about the players and it's about accountability. That's the biggest thing for me, the leadership, how they're handling one another and how they're holding one another accountable. You can be very successful that way.
"It's a new team. It's got a different attitude. From top to bottom, they're playing extremely hard. They're playing within the team concept and the structure that we need to play, and good things happen."
The new attitude has been fueled by a handful of personnel changes made by general manager Garth Snow during the offseason. Perhaps the biggest was overhauling the goaltending. He allowed Evgeni Nabokov, 39, to leave as a free agent after three seasons, acquired the rights to Jaroslav Halak from the Washington Capitals and signed him to a four-year contract, then brought in Chad Johnson from the Boston Bruins as a free agent to serve as Halak's backup.
After a slow start, Halak has given the Islanders the goaltending performances teams need to succeed. He's 12-4-0 with a 2.13 goals-against average, a save percentage of .926 and three shutouts. He made 34 saves to beat New Jersey and extend his winning streak to nine games, one short of the franchise record set by Billy Smith in 1982.
"Goaltending is no different than pitchers or quarterbacks; it's the backbone of your team," Capuano said. "You're only as good as your goaltender. Things are going well for both our guys; they're both working hard and they're staying healthy. When you get that goaltending, it gives you that momentum. It gives the guys energy on the bench."
The Islanders have two of the NHL's best defense prospects in Griffin Reinhart and Ryan Pulock. At least one was expected to make the team out of training camp. But Snow bought time for them to develop in the American Hockey League by using his salary-cap space to acquire veterans Johnny Boychuk from the Boston Bruins and Nick Leddy from the Chicago Blackhawks on the Saturday before the regular season started.
The two newcomers, who play together most of the time, have given the Islanders a boost. Each has been on a Stanley Cup winner; Boychuk in 2012 and Leddy a year later. For a franchise that hasn't won a playoff series since 1993, they've provided a dose of championship swagger that hasn't been seen on Long Island since the dynasty years of the early 1980s.
"They're great people and they've fit right in," captain John Tavares said.
Hall of Fame defenseman Denis Potvin, who was honored before the game Saturday, said the addition of Boychuk and Leddy brings the kind of experience the Islanders have lacked for the past two decades.
Potvin excited by Islanders' revival
By John Kreiser - NHL.com Managing Editor
Former New York Islanders captain Denis Potvin, leader of their Stanley Cup dynasty from 1980-83, said the current team has to grab the chance to write its own history. READ MORE ›
"They're the type of guys that have won Cups," he said. "They've been on those teams that had lots of experience in the sense that, I know what to expect when you're down 3-2 in a best-of-seven series. [Players can ask] what were the leaders [like] Jonathan Toews and [Patrice] Bergeron talking about when you were in that situation as a Hawk or a Boston Bruins player? I think that's where the value is of getting guys that have won."
Up front, Tavares is still among the NHL's elite offensive players. But he no longer has to carry the load alone. Though he leads the Islanders with 23 points, Kyle Okposo (21) and second-year center Brock Nelson (20) are close on his heels, and eight players (including Boychuk and Leddy) have at least 10 points.
"I think all the guys, in one way or another, from the start of the season have picked their game up," Capuano said. "Some of the skilled guys at the beginning of the season might have been a little too cute and tried to make fancy plays. They understand now what we need to do. Some of the other guys who maybe were holding the stick too tight, they're starting to come along.
"They're working extremely hard, they're playing within the team concept and the structure that we need to play."
There are still more than four months of hockey to be played before the playoffs begin, and Tavares knows that a good start is no guarantee of success in the spring.
"We'll build off it and get better," he said. "It's obviously been good to get the results we wanted. This puts us in good position, but there's a long way to go. We want to do what the '80-81 team did in June.
"We're doing some good things and we believe in ourselves. You can see the poise and composure we have now. We just have to keep that going."