For two seasons now, they’ve been the closest thing to a guaranteed two points for the Ottawa Senators.
But don’t think for a second that means the Sens will be anything close to overconfident when they step on the ice at Nassau Veterans’ Memorial Coliseum tonight to face the Islanders in Uniondale, N.Y.
And not just because the Senators are mired in a three-game losing streak, and are a mere 3-4-1 in their last eight starts after a sizzling 13-1-0 start to the season.
At 12-8-1, the Islanders sit right in the thick of the things in the Atlantic Division, in the hunt with the much more heralded New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils and Pittsburgh Penguins for top spot.
Not exactly what was predicted for the Islanders after they couldn’t keep Ryan Smyth out of the clutches of the Colorado Avalanche – who signed him away as a free agent – and 40-goal man Jason Blake bolted for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“They’ve surprised a lot of people who don’t know too much about them,” said Senators centre Randy Robitaille, who played for the Isles last season and helped them make the playoffs on the final day of the regular season. “They lost a lot of guys, but they seem to have done a good job replacing some of them and they’re off to a great start.
“You don’t hear a lot about them. Usually, in the past year, you heard a lot about the Rangers or a lot about the Devils. But Teddy (coach Nolan) went in there last year, and he’s done a great job. He’s sort of turned the organization around.”
That being said, the Senators have owned the Islanders for two straight seasons now, posting an 8-0-0 record against their Eastern Conference foes while outscoring them 36-13 along the way.
Since Feb. 12, 1996, the Senators are an astounding 30-4-8 against the Isles. But none of that matters tonight, according to winger Dany Heatley.
“The past is the past against them,” he said. “They’re very much a good team.”
Head coach John Paddock looks at the Islanders and sees a team that is thriving because of the play of a blue-line corps led by workhorses Brendan Witt, Radek Martinek, Andy Sutton, Chris Campoli and Bryan Berard. They’ve been a tower of strength in front of goaltender Rick DiPietro, who’s 11-7-1 with a 2.31 goals-against average.
“The Islanders are having success because of their defence,” said Paddock. “It’s not a fluke, it’s not going to die out.
“They’re very much for real because of their defence. I think when you have a group of defencemen that play well, or are capable of playing, and bring different things to the mix, that’s a good basis for being competitive every night. And that’s what they are.”
Robitaille isn’t the least bit surprised by the Isles’ success. He points to wily veteran Mike Sillinger and rugged forward Trent Hunter as examples of players who are quietly solid every night.
“A lot of people don’t know a lot about these guys, but having watched them and played with them, you realize it,” said Robitaille. “And when Ricky’s playing well, he’s one of the best. A good goalie can make up for a lot of stuff.”
The Senators will counter with goaltender Ray Emery in tonight’s game (7 p.m., TSN, Team 1200). They’re back home Thursday night to face the Nashville Predators at Scotiabank Place (7:30 p.m., Sportsnet, Team 1200).