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Islanders early success to be tested by road stretch

by John Kreiser

UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- At 6-3-0, the New York Islanders are off to their best start in 13 years. Their challenge during the next few weeks is to show this fast start is not a mirage.

The arrival of November, a month that usually includes at least one tough stretch of road games, has been a harbinger of bad things to come for the Islanders in recent years. All too often, any optimism generated in October has blown away like autumn leaves, sending the Islanders on their way to another early summer vacation. For example, a 6-5-3 start through Nov. 2 of last season collapsed under the weight of a 2-11-0 showing through the rest of the month, part of a 3-18-0 stretch that all but ended their playoff hopes.

But 2014-15 is a new season, and the Islanders are confident that this time, it's going to be different.

Beginning Thursday against the Colorado Avalanche, the Islanders embark on a five-game trip that also includes games against the three California teams before ending with a game against the Arizona Coyotes.

New York comes home on Nov. 11 to host Colorado, then heads back on the road for weekend games against the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning. That's a 17-day stretch with seven of eight games on the road.

But this group of Islanders believes it has the talent and depth to win where previous teams haven't. Coach Jack Capuano is actually looking forward to being tested on the road.

"For me, it's going to measure where we're at," he said. "You talk about some of the teams we're going to play -- these are elite teams, teams that you guys [the media] have picked to probably get to the Stanley Cup Final. It's always a good measuring stick for us."

Despite a 4-3 home loss to the sub-.500 Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday, the Islanders head for Colorado as the first-place team in the Metropolitan Division. They've beaten the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers on the road and the San Jose Sharks and Dallas Stars at home. The Islanders are averaging 3.78 non-shootout goals per game, second in the NHL and enough to overcome a defense that is in the bottom third of the League in goals allowed.

A big reason for the improvement and the basis for the faith that a tough road stretch won't ruin their season are the offseason moves made by general manager Garth Snow. The Islanders have two new goaltenders (Jaroslav Halak and Chad Johnson) and two top-four defensemen who've played on recent Stanley Cup-winning teams (Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy), as well as top-nine forwards Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolay Kulemin, longtime friends who wanted to reunite and signed with New York.

"We talked before the season that we wanted to come out and make a statement and show that we're a good hockey club. With the additions we made last summer, I think we do have a really good team and I think we've been showing it," center Frans Nielsen said. "We just have to keep doing it, keep realizing what we're doing right and compete hard, and hopefully we can keep this going."

The Islanders entered the season expecting to have improved goaltending and defense, as well as more depth up front than they've had in years. Perhaps most important, the additions of Boychuk (a Stanley Cup winner in 2011 with the Boston Bruins) and Leddy (2013 with the Chicago Blackhawks) brings the kind of championship experience the Islanders haven't had since their dynasty days of the 1980s.

Center John Tavares feels bringing in two players with Stanley Cup rings has been a great addition for a team that has made the Stanley Cup Playoffs once since 2007, and is a big reason for the fast start.

"Those guys are all veteran guys. They've had a lot of success in this League and at this level," said Tavares, who's off to a fast start with 12 points in nine games. "Guys like Boychuk and Leddy have won Stanley Cups, so they've got a great presence in our locker room. On the ice, their skill sets are tremendous. When you bring in skilled players like that, veteran guys, they make adjustments so quickly and so well, and they're easy guys to play with. They fit in with our group really well."

At their best, the Islanders are tough to play against. They are fast, can generate chances off the rush and have been able to hem opponents into their own zone for lengthy stretches. The power play is clicking at 25.7 percent, a pace that would have led the NHL last season. Their top three lines can score, and their defense is mobile and can move the puck, though it has struggled in its own zone at times.

"When we play the style of play we want to play and everyone is doing their job and we're playing a high pace and tempo and controlling the puck in the offensive zone, that's where our strengths are," Tavares said. "When you make a team defend it takes a lot of energy to do that and wear them down and makes it tough for them to generate any offense."

There's enough depth now that players like forward Colin McDonald, a regular for the past two seasons, was sent to the minors last week. Promising young defensemen Matt Donovan, Griffin Reinhart and Ryan Pulock are pushing for jobs, but have been healthy scratches or sent to the minors.

"We've got some bodies here that can play, guys who are sitting out could possibly be in our lineup," Capuano said. "Obviously we weren't happy the way last season went, we set goals for ourselves. That's what it comes down to, is the trust in that room and the accountability, not just the coaches with the players but the players with the players."

Capuano sees a benefit to a trip that includes a three-day break between the games against the San Jose Sharks on Saturday and the Anaheim Ducks next Wednesday: It will give the old and new Islanders a chance to spend time together away from the rink.

"I think it's good team-building for the guys," he said. "They spend a lot of time together. Not looking too far ahead, but the three days in California without a game will give guys an opportunity with the young kids to go out and spend some time together away from the rink. They get a chance to bond, and I think that's very important when you have quite a few new players on the team."

Tavares, who's been the face of the franchise since he was drafted in 2009 and is in his second season as captain, knows the trip will be a challenge.

"We're going to play some good teams and we're going to be on the road, where you're out of your comfort zone," he said. "At the same time, I think we're all looking forward to spending time with one another. We had training camp here, and every road game we've had has been a one-nighter. The way you really develop some great chemistry and really come close to one another, is spending a lot of time on the road together.

"There's a long way to go, but the more games you win, the better feeling it is and the more help it's going to be down the road."

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