Written by Ace Staff Writer Youngblood.
It's a warm night in Islander country, aka Long Island. The mild spring air is slowly overtaking the winter cold as we head towards May. But on this night, the weather doesn't matter at all because nothing can bring me down. I sit here almost numb with elation. Sure, winning the Metropolitan Division was a shock and quite the achievement for this young Islander team. But nothing feels better than being in the old rockin' Coliseum de Nassau on the night they finally won a playoff round. It's been over 20 years in the making. We Islander fans suffered through so much...for so long...and tonight, we finally took that step forward. Maybe it's the old barn deciding it's not ready to be done with hockey. Or maybe, after all the suffering, it was just our time. Either way, let's look back at how it happened:
The Additions: I give Garth lots of credit for realizing that while offense was a strength for this team, you can never have enough. Grabovski proved to be a perfect fit for this islander team. 60+ points is great, but what was better was watching him create chances almost every time he was out there. The offense was built around grinders, but the addition of a dangling, smooth skating weapon was what we needed. Kulomin had a nice season, and Conacher turned out to be a great addition to the top line. P.A Parent-who?
The Expected: Okposo proved that the run of solid play dating back to their last playoff series in 2013 is officially not a fluke. Not at all. He had another dominant season and proved he's here to stay. So great seeing him live up the hype - let's not forget what a big prospect he was a million years ago. Tavares may not have put up the same numbers of the last 2 years, but he's become a real leader. His numbers were off, but he's still the franchise. Frans Nieslen was able to morph into a dominant defensive forward, always playing against the other team's best. Also nice to see Michael Grabner manage to score 25 goals, even if he did have 86 breakaways. And the value of Cal Clutterbuck is really understood when the team is successful. I have all new respect for the 'pest' role.
The Youth: At the start of the year I was truly concerned with the logjam at forward. There are talented kids such as Ryan Strome and Anders Lee ready to take the next step in the NHL. They've proved they belong. But when almost every forward from last year was brought back, it was going to be tough to get them in. And when Garth Snow brought in 3 legitimate NHL forwards...well now we have a real problem. But in the end, it all seemed to work out for the best. Having these guys come up throughout the year and provide spark was invaluable.
The Key: I knew Brock Nelson was going to be good, but this breakout year was the key to the team's success. He finally established himself as a true secondary scorer on this team behind the big line. In fact, he had the second most points on the team. But he also killed penalties and played a great 2 way game. I can't wait to see what this guy becomes.
Additions: I was a bit concerned about Leddy and Boychuck not being a part of this team for training camp. It was an aggressive move by Garth acquiring these players and getting them right into the first games of the season. You can see it took a bit of time for them to find their place, but they really did solidify the blue line. Leddy provided skill and was great on the power play, but he can still grow. Boychuck is simply the man. Talk about a crowd pleaser. Who on Long Island is not a Johnny Boychuck fan right now?
The Key: I think the best part of adding Leddy and Boychuck was that it paved the way for Travis Hamonic to prove the he's the most effective D-man on the team (and an absolute bargain the next 6 years). He's always been a warrior for this team but was always thrown into a role that he really needed more time to grow into. Well now with the pressure off, he's proven to be a solid 2-way defenseman that can punish people. It's amazing how much better a guy can be when pucks aren't bouncing off him into his own net.
2 word...Chad Johnson. Halak was supposed to be the guy, but Chad Johnson was the wall. It was a tough decision for Capuano when the playoffs came around...but he proved that the strategy of 'going with the hot hand' pays off. Although they played almost the same number of games this season...Johnson had the better numbers and was more consistent down the stretch. The Islanders needed a goalie going into this season in the worst way...and they ended up with 2.
I think it was pretty obvious that Jack Capuano was on the hot seat this season. Not only did his team take a step back last year, but he was finally given the tools this year and that was going to either make him or break him. I'd say it made him. Great to see the team finally play his style hockey and work hard almost every night.
I was very, very excited for this season to start. After crunching all the numbers and running all of the analysis, 2014 was going to be the year. It had to be the year. And it was. This team is built for the future, but ready to succeed now. The goal of winning a playoff round has finally been met...but how much further can this run go?? How many more nights will the old barn scream it's head off?
I'll see you in May.