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Playoff berth would be milestone in Islanders' rebuild

by Brian Compton /

UNIONDALE, N.Y. – It will be five years this June since New York Islanders general manager Garth Snow changed the course of the franchise.

Knowing full well he would experience difficulty getting big-name free agents to agree to play long-term at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, Snow called for a complete rebuild. So when the 2007-08 Islanders finished in the bottom five of the NHL standings, Snow got to work at the 2008 NHL Draft at Scotiabank Place in Ottawa.

Aiming to stockpile picks, Snow traded down twice in the first round, from the fifth to the ninth pick, where he collected the first piece of his rebuild: Windsor Spitfires center Josh Bailey. At the same draft, Snow landed defenseman Travis Hamonic, goaltender Kevin Poulin and forward Matt Martin, all of whom are on the club's current roster.

In somewhat of a surprise, Bailey made the Islanders out of training camp in September 2008 and stuck with the club all season. New York finished last in the standings, which allowed them to land unquestionably the rebuild's biggest piece: franchise center John Tavares.

Still, the Islanders continued to finish near the bottom of the League's standings. Even prior to the start of last season, when players and management alike swore the rebuild was over and qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs was the goal, the Islanders again finished in the bottom five.

This season, though, has been a different story.

With six games remaining, the Islanders (21-16-5) enter Tuesday's match against the Florida Panthers at the Coliseum in seventh place in the Eastern Conference. They'll conclude the season with a five-game road trip, and at 5-0-2 in April, controls their destiny and have a very good chance of reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2007.

"There's been a bunch of us here for a while, and we haven't had a whole lot of winning," Bailey told "No playoffs yet, and it's been frustrating every year to go home and watch the playoffs. I think being down the stretch here, it's been exciting playing in these games and winning. We've got to keep winning here to make sure that we hold our spot. It's fun, though. I think we're enjoying the moment, but we know at the same time we haven't accomplished anything yet. We've still got quite a few big games to go here."

In 2011-12, despite an 81-point season from Tavares, a 36-goal season from Matt Moulson and a .914 save percentage from newcomer Evgeni Nabokov, the Islanders missed the playoffs by 13 points. Their inability to protect leads in the third period was an alarming issue, mainly due to some holes on their blue line.

Snow addressed that issue over the summer, landing veteran defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky from the Anaheim Ducks and Matt Carkner (Ottawa Senators) via free agency before claiming Brian Strait (Pittsburgh Penguins) and Thomas Hickey (Los Angeles Kings) off waivers. While Strait is on the verge of returning from an ankle injury, Hickey has a plus-5 rating in 34 appearances. New York has allowed 27 or fewer shots on goal in 12 of its past 14 games, and defenseman Andrew MacDonald leads the NHL with 112 blocked shots.

"I think since I've been here, we've always had a good group of guys," said Bailey, who had both of New York's goals in Thursday's 2-1 road win against the Boston Bruins. "I think this year, we've really jelled well together and learned how to win some big games. I think you gain confidence when you get some success -- not that we've had a ton yet -- but I think you start gaining a little bit of confidence, believing in one another, believing in ourselves … it's been fun. But we've still got to keep going. We've never been satisfied. We've got to keep pushing and keep working hard."

Secondary scoring has been a welcome addition. The dynamic duo of Tavares and Moulson has combined for 37 goals this season, and the rest of the club has found the back of the net 82 times. The second line of Bailey, Frans Nielsen and Kyle Okposo has been especially good during the past month, and speedy winger Michael Grabner -- another of Snow's waiver claims and a Calder Trophy finalist in 2011 -- has 13 goals in 39 games.

"I think what I've seen from this group is just the contributions we've had from everybody and the difference that can make as a team," said Tavares, who leads the Islanders with 24 goals and 42 points. "You need everybody going and you need contributions from everybody. We have guys stepping up every night, and that makes a huge difference. We just seem to have a good understanding -- individually, and as a team -- of what we have to do to be ready to play every night."

Mark Streit, who signed a five-year, $20 million contract with the Islanders in the summer of 2008 because of the opportunity they provided him to prove himself as a premier NHL defenseman, admitted he's having more fun now coming to the rink than he did at any point during his time in New York. Streit, who was named captain prior to last season, can become an unrestricted free agent this summer. He last competed in the playoffs in 2008, his final season with the Montreal Canadiens.

"It's been the most fun since I've been here," Streit told "Obviously we always had a great team and a good atmosphere in the locker room, but when you're winning and you're battling for a playoff spot, it's a whole different story. Practices have been really good. It's way more fun to play, because you know you're actually playing for something. There's a lot of people in the building and it's a great atmosphere. It feels already like playoffs."


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But it's not only an exciting time for the players. Islanders coach Jack Capuano is also in search of his first taste of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but he knows it will ultimately be up to the guys on his bench to seal the deal.

"They're excited," Capuano said. "A lot of these guys -- whether it's college or juniors, they've been in situations [like this] before. We all have. It's a situation that as an individual, it's how you prepare for these games and how you're mentally focused."

More important, he'd like to see the likes of Streit, Nielsen, Bailey, Tavares, Okposo – the ones who were here for the toughest of times – be rewarded with an opportunity to compete for hockey's Holy Grail.

"It should mean a lot to them … they went through some struggles here," Capuano said. "They haven't been in this situation before, but they're in it now and you don't know when you're going to get back to this situation. It's tough … 30-1 shot to win the Cup, you know what I mean? It's just getting to the dance and trying to do your thing. That's what they have to be focused on.

"Going through this, as a coach you just try to prepare your team. You don't want to change a lot of things. You want to make sure that the guys are ready to play in all areas of the game, but at this point, it's about the guys. They're the ones that have put themselves here. They're the ones that have really executed and worked hard. For our coaching staff, it's fun to be a part of to see these guys grow and get in the situation that they're in."

Six games. Twelve points still available. No one knows exactly how many more points it will take to break the Islanders' six-year playoff drought, but they seem willing to put in the work to get the job done. They know until there's an "x" next to their name in the standings, they won't be extended an invitation.

"We still haven't accomplished what we want to accomplish," Tavares said. "There's still ups and downs we're going through. We're just doing a good job of approaching each game the same way and having the same focus, but there's still ups and downs. We're just trying to do everything we can to get there.

"It's great to be where we're at and kind of come together this last month and really make a push here and give ourselves a great opportunity. There's still a lot of work to be done and we can't lose sight of that."


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