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Special teams, home ice X-factors for Islanders

by Brian Compton

NEW YORK -- The New York Islanders may have taken some teams by surprise last season when they won 47 games and emerged among the elite in the Metropolitan Division.

They know they won't be surprising anybody this time around, which could make the road to the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs a tad bumpier.

"Everybody that's involved in management really believes in the group," defenseman Travis Hamonic said. "I think more importantly, the players believe in one another. I think we have the personnel to go out and get the job done. We feel that we came up short last year.

"We have a lot to prove. Nothing's going to be given to us. We know it's going to be much harder this season. Teams are going to be expecting us now, and we're not going to beat anybody by coming out blind. We're ready for the test and we're grateful we've got the same group in here because it's a fun group to win with."

Here are three X-factors that will impact the Islanders' postseason chances:

Consistency on special teams: New York's power play boasts far too many weapons for it to struggle as badly as it did down the stretch last season. Led by captain John Tavares, who finished second in the NHL in scoring, the Islanders must avoid getting too fancy with the man advantage and shoot more pucks from the point. Perhaps the signing of defenseman Marek Zidlicky will help, as should 2013 first-round pick Ryan Pulock if he receives an opportunity.

Zidlicky is ultimately replacing veteran defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky, whom the Islanders declined to re-sign this summer. Zidlicky had seven goals and 27 assists between the New Jersey Devils and Detroit Red Wings last season.

"We've lost some guys on the back end that really helped our power play," coach Jack Capuano told the Islanders website. "Having a guy like Zidlicky, a right shot, that's a strength of his. He's an offensive-minded guy, a smart guy, an intelligent hockey player. I see him being a big, integral part of our power play."

Feeling at home: The Islanders will play their home games somewhere other than Nassau Coliseum for the first time in 43 years when they open the season against the Chicago Blackhawks at Barclays Center on Oct. 9.

New York has played some preseason games in Brooklyn over the past three seasons, but the real test will come against Chicago to see if the Islanders can have a home-ice advantage at Barclays Center similar to the one they had at a raucous Coliseum last season.

"I think we have great fans," forward Ryan Strome said. "I'm sure every team says that, but if you look at our building in playoffs and at the end of the season, there's no doubt that passion will continue to Brooklyn. Hopefully we have a winning team on the ice and they support us even more.

"I think at the end of the day, our fans are pretty loyal. They follow a winning team, and that's what we're going to be. I think that's the biggest home-ice advantage right there."

Young forwards take next step: It's no secret how skilled Tavares is, but the Islanders will need a few of his younger teammates to build on what they accomplished last season.

Strome played 81 games as a 21-year-old and had 50 points in his first full NHL season. If Strome continues to evolve, the Islanders will be extremely deep offensively.

Brock Nelson, who turns 24 on Oct. 15, signed a three-year contract with the Islanders on the eve of training camp. Nelson, who can play center or wing, played in all 82 games last season and scored 20 goals.

Anders Lee, who started 2014-15 with Bridgeport in the American Hockey League, was promoted before the end of October and went on to score 25 goals. Lee, 6-foot-3 and 228 pounds could be exactly who Tavares needs in front of the net while the latter works his magic between the circles.

"If that's the best place for me, the best place for the team, I would love to be there," Lee, 25, said when asked of the possibility to skate alongside Tavares. "I think John's such a skilled and elite player in this League. He makes everyone around him a better player, and I try to do the same thing -- make him better, creating space with him. If I can work with him and we can click, I think it can be really good."


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