Who Would of Thunk It? The New York Islanders are Tops in Metro Division at the All-Star Break

time is now

I have been an Islander fan since the beginning of the 1992-93 season. If you told me before the season that the Isles would be the top team in the metro and only one point behind Tampa Bay for top team in the East, I probably would have asked you to pinch me. But here we are! Now I already knew this team was better than the 79 point finish they had last season. The Islanders were held together the previous season with an AHL defense and a 38 year old goaltender Evgeni Nabokov, whose best playing days were certainly behind him. I respected Nabokov’s time here – he brought calmness and leadership to a very young and inexperienced locker room. The season was already down the drain by the time Islanders captain John Tavares went down with a torn MCL and torn meniscus in his knee suffered during the Olympics in Sochi, Russia. It was very clear after last season the Islanders could score goals, and at times in bunches, but would they be able to keep the puck out of their own net?

Islanders General Manager Garth Snow first had to find a true number one goaltender. Since the Islanders were weak in the goaltending department in their own farm system, Snow had to look elsewhere to find his guy. In the past it had been impossible to woo any top free agents to come to Long Island mainly because the Islanders play in the oldest building in the NHL and prior to last season nobody knew where the Islanders would be playing in the future, whether it would be Kansas City or Quebec. This year we know with certainty the Islanders are staying on Long Island, albeit in Brooklyn, and they have a new home in the state of the art Barclays Center. Still Snow had to make a big splash to get his number one spot. On May 1, 2014 the Islanders sent a fourth round pick to the Washington Capitals in exchange for Jaroslav Halak. Only two shorts months later Halak was due to become an unrestricted free agent. It took Snow 22 days to get Halak to ink a four year, $18 million contract. Goaltending, check.

A few short weeks before the 2014-15 season was to begin, the Islanders still looked very weak on the back end of the ice. A better, younger goaltender in Halak was going to make a difference and getting Visnovsky back from injury was a plus also. Visnovsky was injured most of the 2013-14 season and was limited to only 24 games played, but like Nabokov he was also showing a lot of miles. Then came the day that every Islanders fan will remember for a long time to come: the day that cemented Garth Snow in the hearts of every Islanders fan – October 4, 2014. The first deal I heard go down was the Johnny Boychuk deal. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The Islanders acquired Boychuk from the Boston Bruins for two picks and a conditional pick. It was unbelievable to get a player that was at the peak of their career and not on the back end. He had Stanley cup playoff experience to boot, even winning a cup with Boston in 2011. I was still riding the high when the next deal was announced. We were getting Nick Leddy, the young talented defenseman from the Chicago Blackhawks. I almost hit the roof with excitement. Two great solid defenseman and both of which won Stanley Cups. In one day Garth Snow almost assured the Islanders would finally end their playoff series win drought. The Islanders haven’t won a playoff series since the first year I started watching them when they knocked out twotime defending Stanley Cup Champion the Pittsburgh Penguins in game seven on David Volek’s overtime goal in 1993. Now it will be up to Garth Snow to see if the Islanders can sign both Boychuk and Leddy to new contracts before their current contracts expire at the end of the season. Defense, check.

garth smilingGarth Snow is all smiles after looking like a genius this season

Driving the success behind this season has been the diehard fans of this once downtrodden franchise.  The fans have sold out the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum eleven times this year already and will most likely sell out most of the second half too. Put a winning team on the ice and the fans will come. What was once a hindrance to attract free agents is now pulling the current New York Islander players into its old magic and mystique. This is the last old barn in hockey. Go to a game at the Coliseum when the crowd is rocking. There is nothing that compares to it. It can get so loud you can’t hear yourself think. The fans in the uppermost sections can even touch and bang on the retro fitted luxury boxes for added noise. The current players have embraced this crazed atmosphere and they have also adopted the Yes! Yes! Yes! Chant said loudly after each Islander goal scored this season. The chant was conceived by a rabid section of the Islanders fan base called the 329 Army that sits together in section 329 at every home game at the coliseum. Insane sellout crowds, check.

Do I believe the Islanders are a legitimate Stanley Cup Contender? The jury is still out on that one. The Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers are nipping at their heels to take over the metro division lead. However, I believe the Islanders will end their playoff series win drought at the conclusion of this season. They still have a lot of work ahead of them to be real contenders come playoff time. First, their penalty kill is only 74.4%, tied with the Philadelphia Flyers and only ahead of the Buffalo Sabres. Their powerplay is only middle of the pack at 19.2%. Islander’s head coach Jack Capuano continues to play Halak too much and he definitely looked tired his last two starts, giving up six and four goals to the Montreal Canadians and Philadelphia Flyers respectively. It is hard to fault Capuano though as Islanders backup goaltender Chad Johnson has looked god awful this season for the team in his limited playing time.

coliseumEven with all its faults, the Coliseum will be missed

This has definitely been a season to remember for the last one at the Coliseum. I already took a second mortgage out on the house to secure my tickets for the final regular season home game and will be making the drive down from Buffalo to see it all go down. I wouldn’t miss it for the world – I had to be there. The building is magic and has already seen four Stanley Cup championship teams on Long Island. One day I hope to be part of a fifth championship and finally the team seems poised to do that in the next couple of years. But just in case, can somebody pinch me to make sure I am not dreaming?

yes chantFans celebrating after an Islander goal with the Yes, Yes, Yes Chant!

– Damian Mikrut

Follow me on Twitter: @nyislanders19