Two years after John Tavares’ decision, the Islanders are in a better place than when he left

Today marks two years since the New York Islanders saw John Tavares walk out the door as an unrestricted free agent.

On that fateful day, Tavares made his decision to leave the Isles after nine seasons to sign with the Toronto Maple Leafs, whom he grew up rooting for. His selection — another supposedly huge setback, one the Islanders were used to so often — stung heavily for the entire organization and the fanbase.

Every Isles fan can recall that day and where they were when they heard the news.

Sidenote: For me, sadly enough I was in the backseat of a car with a few of my Ranger fan friends driving back from a flag football game and was about to take a nap. Then my buddy got a twitter notification and said loudly, “he’s gone.” I just sat there in silence, literally stunned.

It’s easy to see why that was my and many others’ reaction.

Tavares was the “Chosen One” and was brought to Long Island to be the savior back in 2009. The Islanders drafted him first overall that summer with the hope he would lead the franchise back to glory.

And there’s no question he did everything in his power to fulfill those lofty expectations.

He was everything and more than the Isles could have asked for in his years in orange and blue. Superstar. Captain. Leader. The face of the franchise. He put the entire team on his back to help them slay the dragon and win their first playoff series in 23 years in 2016. And even before he left, he was the one advocating for the team to return back to the Nassau Coliseum on a part or full-time basis.

All of that sentiment though faded for many that pivotal July afternoon. We all know about the treatment he received his first trip back to Long Island and the two other games he’s played as an Islander opponent. Even now, the number he donned for almost a decade — 91 — was retired this past season and hangs in the rafters with (Butch) Goring’s name on it. 


When Tavares announced he was leaving, the consensus from around the hockey world was the Islanders were left for dead. They had just come off a second straight season of missing the playoffs and were considered the worst defensive team in the NHL.

Looking back at it now, the critics were wrong.

Several things have changed dramatically for the franchise since Tavares’s departure, on and off the ice.

For starters, there are actual adults in charge of running this organization. Granted, Tavares was still a part of the Isles when ownership hired Lou Lamoriello to be the general manager and when Lou hired Barry Trotz as head coach, but that was only for a month at best. Lamoriello has restored accountability and true direction back to this franchise, while Trotz has created an identity and we-before-me mentality since taking over.

Both also have re-invigorated the pride and respect that comes with putting on an Islander uniform.

The team has a core who looks poised to be together and win together. Lamoriello has assembled a group of players who wanted to be here for the long-haul and who believe they can bring a Stanley Cup back to the organization. He’s done it with team-friendly contracts and key acquisitions.

A real head coach and actual structure. We don’t know if Tavares will ever be kicking himself for not sticking it out and getting to play for Trotz (seriously hope he does), but how Trotz has transformed the organization can’t be denied. Yes, JT was thrown a not-so-easy hand with Scott Gordon, Jack Capuano, and Doug Weight. Then again, neither of those three combined has the acumen and experience Trotz has delivered. Trotz’s structure has turned the Islanders into one of the top teams in the league defensively and has allowed several players to evolve into something no one thought they could be (looking at you, Adam Pelech). 

The organization has a number of talented prospects in the pipeline. One of Tavares’s main reasons for choosing Toronto was its highly-touted farm system. But the Isles have done a solid job themselves restacking the system. Rookie d-man Noah Dobson — drafted 12th overall in 2019 — was with the Isles this past season and has top-four potential; Oliver Wahlstrom, Kieffer Bellows, and Simon Holmstrom have the opportunity to add some real depth on the wing in the near future; Bode Wilde and Samuel Bolduc aren’t far off from adding to an already deep yet underrated d-corps. Oh and that Ilya Sorokin guy. A Russian phenom, Sorokin — whenever he finally does join the organization — will be the unequivocal future in goal.

A captain with character. Some might call this a shot at Tavares, but in retrospect, it’s not. Anders Lee has brought more personality while wearing the “C” on his sweater than Tavares truly did. Lee has become what the Isles needed in a leader to help establish that team-first mantra. He’s already well-respected by everyone in the locker room and is willing to do anything for the team to win.

A real home on the horizon. I can still picture the day back in December 2017 where Tavares and his teammates were at the celebration for the franchise winning the bid to build a brand new home at Belmont Park. It honestly felt that day would also be what caused Tavares to stay an Islander. Boy was that a pipedream of sorts.

During Tavares’ tenure with the Isles, there had been non-stop chatter about a new home for the organization. That was never a reality until now.

The new arena at Belmont is nearly halfway finished and is set to open for the 2021-22 season, but it has already made the Isles a destination once again and will be an even bigger game-changer once construction finally complete.

When Tavares left two years, this once-proud franchise looked to be on its last leg. That’s no longer the case.

They are in a much better position with a brighter future.

A fully healthy d-corps can be the x-factor for a deep playoff run for the Islanders

If you already didn’t know by now, the New York Islanders will be a fully healthy squad when the NHL begins its 24-team playoff at the beginning of August.

That means a refreshed and re-energized defensive corps which not only will be hole once again with Adam Pelech returning but one that has depth and added experience.

Having those intangibles could make the Isles go very far in the postseason, farther than they’ve been able to get in their last two postseason appearances.

Now sure they’ll need their offense and goaltending to step up, but it’s the blueline which is Barry Trotz’s squad’s most important strength. We were witnesses this year to just how crucial having a healthy defense can be to the success of this team.

When Pelech went down in early January with a supposed season-ending Achillies injury, things began to crumble. Besides a losing record — the Isles went 10-13-7 with Pelech out — the entire D looked more vulnerable and less structured in their own zone. Several players, not known for making mistakes started to make them much too often. The pressure of replacing Pelech also forced veterans like Johnny Boychuk, Nick Leddy, and rookie Noah Dobson to struggle with heavier workloads. Even the addition of Andy Greene before the trade deadline didn’t help much in stopping the bleeding.

But that’s all in the past. The nine defensemen the Islanders will have when full-team training camps begin next week in Phase 3 of the NHL’s Return To Play program, provides them a huge advantage moving forward.

And their lies where the Isles can really make a deep run — Trotz will have a litany of options at his disposal. Meaning he can throw something different at an opponent at a moment’s notice.`

You can take it to the bank that Trotz will partner Pelech back up with usual his running mate, Ryan Pulock. Those two will be the number one pair. Pelech and Pulock were the biggest reason the Isles swept the Penguins in the first round in last year’s postseason. How they shut down Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and the Penguins’ other top forwards was exceptional and was the model for how to counterattack a team’s most dangerous players.

That duo being back together immediately transforms the whole club and making the Isles a more robust team to play against.

Behind that twosome is an interesting mix.

Devon Toews and Scott Mayfield both had up and down campaigns before the year was suspended. As a pairing though, they’ve shown in the past they can be very dependable and sneaky good. They two were quiet but effective the previous spring against the Pens. Toews alone was the Isles’ best player in their second-round defeat to the Carolina Hurricanes.

The other veterans, Boychuk, Leddy, and Thomas Hickey for that matter, also provide more vigor.

Boychuk being 100%, after the scary incident with him being cut by a skate to the face the week before the hiatus, supplies the Isles another needed element on the back end. Beyond his playoff experience, at 36, Boychuk is still that hard-nosed, gut-it-out d-man who is willing to pay the price, exemplified by his continuing nature to block shots and throw his body around. To win in the postseason, you need players like him.

For Leddy,  he wasn’t having a bad year before the stoppage, but his game and numbers definitely weren’t up to his standard. Another chance to turn it on in the playoffs could bring out the best we’ve seen from him.

Regarding Hickey, it’s unlikely he will see any playoff action based on he’s the last player on the depth chart behind rookie Noah Dobson. Still, if he does see the ice, Hickey will be all recovered from his injuries during the season. Keep this in mind: don’t think his experience in past postseasons, plus not having played a single game with the big club all year, won’t provide him with that necessary chip on his shoulder. It most certainly will.

Then you have Andy Greene, who played well in his short run with the Islanders who came over before the deadline.

At 37, Greene knows the grind of going far in the playoffs — he’s played in the postseason six times in his career, including the Stanley Cup with the New Jersey Devils in 2012. Another solid option who can help benefit the Isles as the series and months go longer, Greene, if tabbed by Trotz, will be fresh and gives the Isles’ defense even more invaluable experience and veteran gumption.

To be successful in the NHL playoffs, your defense needs to be at its very best and stay healthy. The Islanders are no different. Their defense is going to be the deciding factor if they do end up playing for a Stanley Cup later this summer.

Brock Nelson’s ten years in the Islanders organization has never had a dull moment

While the New York Islanders continue to prep for the playoffs, it’s an anniversary for one of the team’s biggest names.

Today marks ten years that Brock Nelson has been a part of the organization. And for many that have followed him, including myself, his Isles tenure has never lacked intrigue.

Nelson, now 28, came to the franchise as a baby-faced teenager out of Warroad, Minnesota. The Islanders drafted him 30th overall in the 2010 Entry Draft with the hopes he can become a top-two center for the future behind the face of the franchise and the player they drafted number-one overall a year earlier, John Tavares.

Being from a hockey hotbed — Warroad had produced Stanley Cup winner T.J. Oshie, and the Christian’s (USA Hockey royalty) for whom Nelson calls family — there were expectations for Nelson.

“Coming from Warroad, a small town, there’s a lot of people that have sacrificed [for you],” Nelson told to the Islanders’ team website as he reminisced about his draft day experience. “You get free ice and everybody up there, they live and die by the game. Obviously, your family puts in a lot of time. You start to realize that as you get older and when you have kids, how hard everything is to make things for your kids and to provide them opportunities to succeed. Just to have your family there with you is pretty surreal together and share that moment after everything they’ve done to help you get there.”

Nelson would go on to play two seasons at the University of North Dakota before going pro. There, he starred for the Fighting Sioux and was named All-WCHA Third Team in 2011-12 and WCHA All-Tournament Team in 2012. In his one full season in the AHL — 2012-13 — Nelson showed top-six potential with 52 points in 66 games.

Nelson produced enough to get the call to the Isles. He made his NHL debut in game six of the team’s first round matchup with the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Islanders would lose the game and the series that evening, but that was the start for Nelson.

When the next season began, Nelson was expected to make the varsity; he did. With 14 goals and 26 points in 72 games, Nelson made his presence felt. But he also proved he had 20-25 goal potential and looked like he was living up to his draft status.

Nelson notched the first of his five 20-goal seasons in 2014-15 as the Isles surprised in the East. Another part of his game though began to creep in, and it would become a hot button over the next several seasons — inconsistency.

Starting that year, despite a career-best 42 points, Nelson would go games and sometimes weeks without producing points. This trend started to allow fans to question Nelson’s drive and effort. That theory followed into the next year even when Nelson tallied his most goals, 26.

There was a moment late in that ‘15-‘16 season where former head coach Jack Capuano singled out Nelson — and two others — and said they needed to “pick their shit up!” It was another hint that Nelson wasn’t playing up to the level he needed to be.

The Islanders would win their first playoff series in 23 years that spring before falling in five games in the semifinals to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Nelson played in all 11 games, yet had only one goal to show for.

Heading into 2016-17, Nelson was being tabbed as the club’s number-two center behind Tavares following Frans Nielsen’s departure in unrestricted free agency in July. This was going to be a huge opportunity for the then 25-year-old, and while he again recorded another 40-plus point season, Nelson never elevated to that next level. What’s worse, along with the inconsistency, Nelson had gained the reputation of being a “soft” player. All this even with his 6’3, 200-plus pound frame.

A lot of fans had soured on Nelson at this point and believed maybe a change of scenery was needed. He was never dealt and went into a contract year, 2017-18, needing a huge year. Again, those old habits came back and Nelson had his worst statistical season to date, 19 goals and 35 points.

Everything pointed to Nelson finally leaving the organization.

Enter Barry Trotz.

When Trotz became head coach in the summer of 2018, he made it a point to have Nelson be the team’s full-time number-two center. He challenged Nelson to elevate his game too in the wake of John Tavares leaving the organization to sign with his hometown Leafs.

All that offseason, and even when he signed a one-year qualifying offer, the question remained whether Nelson would find that next gear.

It was evident early on last season, Nelson had finally got the message. He surprised everyone, getting off to a great start and solidified himself as one of the Isles’ most efficient forwards.

“The first conversation was I thought he was a better player than just from afar,” Trotz told Newsday early on last year. “I didn’t see a lot of warts on Nellie when we had him and we got to know him. I thought they were missing out on what he could bring to the group. He knows how important he is to the group and he has embraced the responsibility of being a good player on a pretty decent team.”

A career-high 53 points and an excellent performance in the playoffs got a Nelson a brand new six-year, $6 million contract.

Nelson has once again progressed this past season before the coronavirus pandemic shutdown the shocker season in March. He was four goals shy of cracking 30 and just five shy of the 60-point plateau, which would have made it the best season of his career.

Now a father of two, Nelson has come a long way in his ten years with the Islanders. He’s now one of their cornerstones who can hopefully bring a Stanley Cup back to Long Island.

His path to get to this point and the hurdles he overcame has made his years with the franchise anything but boring.

 

 

Belmont Park Arena’s latest developments continue to provide solace for Islanders and their fans

If you follow the New York Islanders, these last few days have felt a bit rough.

First came the unfortunate news Tuesday regarding the closing of the Coliseum by Mikhail Prokhorov’s Onexim Sports and Entertainment — the company which operates the Old Barn — as he looks for new investors to help keep the building running and assist in paying off $100 million in debt. And then yesterday, a report came out stating prized prospect Ilya Sorokin is in a “holding pattern” as he waits for the NHL to come to a decision as to whether he can play for the organization this season.

Things seemed like they weren’t looking up. But once again, the thing that continues to provide some comfort for the fanbase took center stage — the Isles’ soon to be future home at Belmont Park.

In a 15-minute video released last night, the team provided updates on the construction going on right now after they were given the go-ahead to resume working on the building a few weeks ago following a two-month shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. Richard Browne, the Managing Director of Sterling Project Development, whose company is running the show right now on site, spoke of exciting developments.

Browne acknowledged that construction is still ahead of schedule, and that he and his team are both “optimistic and very determined” that the building will be ready by October 2021. He also pointed out the momentum the project continues to gain and by the end of this summer, the roof will already be in place.

“We should be topped off – meaning the last piece of structural steel for the venue will be up toward the end of the summer,” Browne said. “We will be enclosing the building with architectural precast and it’s being manufactured as we speak.”

Even more fantastic news followed. Browne noted that by the end of the year, the entire outside of the facility is expected to be finished, meaning work on the inside will officially begin.

“By the end of the year, you should see an enclosed building,” he said. “On the inside, there will literally be well over 1,000 men and women working around the clock on the interiors to build out that space and have it ready for the 2021-22 season.”

A few other exciting prospects Browne provided fans with is what the experience will be like for Islander games.

“When you are on the inside, you will be a part of cutting-edge technology, the sound, sightlines, food offerings, everything; you’re going to know you’re in a next-generation arena,” he added. “You can be sure, between the orange and blue and the honor paid to the tradition of the franchise, there will be no doubt this will be the branded Islanders home.”

Just listening to those words, it’s hard not to get excited about what this building is going to do for the franchise. Everyone connected to the organization has been juiced up since the moment the team won the bid back in December 2017 and from when they broke ground last September. Add to that the other news that dropped yesterday about the arena’s new executive team being named and some of the heavy hitters who will be involved, and the reality of the Islanders finally getting the home they rightfully deserve feels like it’s getting closer by the day. 

There’s still an entire summer to go, but the Isles and their supporters can keep taking solace in knowing a palace will be theirs soon.

Maybe some of that good karma will rub off on the actual team if and when they begin their qualifying series against the Panthers as well as a few other situations facing the organization right now.

Wouldn’t that be something?

 

The never ending drama that is the Islanders’ arena saga

New York Islanders, Nassau Coliseum

Just when you think the New York Islanders are in the clear when it comes to their arena problems, they get thrown another curveball.

Yesterday, a report from Bloomberg.com came out with information that Mikhail Prokhorov, whose Onexim Sports and Entertainment which operates the Nassau Coliseum under the lease of Nassau County, is planning to shut down its doors as they try to find new investors to take over the arena’s operations and help pick up the $100 million debt remaining on the building.

The Coliseum hasn’t hosted any events since the coronavirus shut down the entire country and the Islanders’ season.

The last time the Isles did host a game there just five days before the shutdown — a controversial 3-2 overtime loss to the Carolina Hurricanes. And truthfully, that game might have been the last the Islanders ever play in their original, and since refurbished Old Barn. With no postseason games expected to be hosted in the building — the NHL decided the playoffs will be taking place in Las Vegas and another hub citym which will be chosen sometime next week — and the prospect of the following season possibly not beginning till January with or without fans, uncertainty is once again staring the Isles right in the face.

This latest development with securing a home is just another “spoke in the wheel” the Islanders continue to endure until they finally have a shiny, brand new building of their own at Belmont Park, which will be ready to open for the 2021-22 season.

The Islanders and their fans have been through anything and everything imaginable when it comes to wanting to have a stable facility that will provide long-term security. It’s been this way since the early ’90s when the Coliseum, already over 20 years old. Was beginning to fall apart. There were talks back then of the possibility of a new facility, but the incompetence of government officials always clouded them. John Spano, the person who technically owned the Isles for several months towards the end of the ’90s, was in talks with Nassau County about building a new home for the franchise. That all went out the window when he was convicted of fraud and lied about who he was and how much money he was really worth.

That was really just the start of it all.

After Charles Wang became part-owner of the team in 2000 and then sole owner a year later, he had his own vision of a brand new building. It was part of his overall plan — The Lighthouse Project (who could forget that jingle) — to help revitalize the entire hub that surrounded the Coliseum. The plan never saw the light of day because of Kate Murray and the buffoonery again that was Nassau County politics. Dealing with such a dense crowd even prompted Wang to look at other options, which included Kansas City and Quebec for possible relocation of the franchise.

Fast forward a few years later and the latest jolt to get the Islanders a new home came in the form of a plan between Wang and former county executive Ed Mangano. The proposal called for a $400 million arena paid with taxpayer’s money. Of course, that plan also went nowhere after the powers that be decided to have Nassau County residents vote on whether to green-light the plan stupidly at the beginning of August. The decision was horrendous and again left the Isles with a murky future.

Then came a little bit of hope, or so we thought.

Out of options and patience by October 2012 — the NHL was also just at the beginning of what would be season that was locked out until January — Wang did what he could to save the franchise from moving. He agreed to move the Islanders to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center after the team’s lease with the Coliseum ran out following the 2014-15 season. The contract was said to be “ironclad” for the next 25 years.

When the Islanders did start playing in Kings County, it was a disaster. The obstructed seats, the total disconnect between the fans, players, and organization with the building, and the building not being suitable to house an NHL team was impossible to ignore. It’s no wonder the new owners of the team — Scott Malkin and Jon Ledecky — were immediately looking for another place to play, not even before the end of the first year in Brooklyn.

Things only continued to get worse as the Brooklyn experiment, and at one point, it was reported that Barclays wanted to kick the Islanders out. By 2017, it was time for the two-decades-long drama to stop.

Enter Belmont Park.

The Islanders put in a bid to build a state-of-the-art facility on the grounds of the park, which was state own land. They were awarded the bid in December, and it seemed there was finally light at the end of the tunnel. Wrong. After the franchise won the bid, there were lawsuits, red tape, community outrage, and just pure stupidity that tried to stop the project or make sure it was years before it got started.

Surprisingly, everything worked out for the Islanders, but they still were going to need a place to play while the building would be built, which brings us back to Nassau Coliseum.

The team has been playing there since it was announced they would return to the Coliseum for 12 games for the 2018-19 campaign. They split the home schedule with Barclays this past season and were all set to play the playoffs plus all 41 home dates next season, which was made official by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in early March. After yesterday’s story, that announcement feels moot.

So when will the drama end? I tweeted it could come in 477 days. By then, it will be October 2021, and the new hockey season ready to begin.

That date still feels like a long ways away. But it will get here. Until then, we’re all still living in the reality show that is the Islanders arena drama.

A story that never seems to want to end.

 

New York Islanders: Semyon Varlamov will be seeking redemption when, and if, the postseason starts

Semyon Varlamov will be seeking one thing as he and the Islanders gear up for the playoffs: Redemption.

It was in 2014, where Varlamov was a Vezina Trophy finalist and got to experience postseason hockey for the first time as a member of the dominant Colorado Avalanche. That season, Varlamov and the Avs were the second-best team in the Western Conference and cruised to the playoffs, being matchup up with the pesky Minnesota Wild in the opening round.

The series went the distance, and Colorado was stunned by the Wild, losing the series when ex-Islander Nino Niederreiter scored in overtime of the deciding game seven.

The entire series was a nightmare for Varlamov. He gave up 20 goals in seven starts, including ten in the final two games. In that pivotal seventh game, Varlamov was unable to keep Minnesota at bay even after his team gave him four one-goal leads to work with. 

Six years later, the 32-year-old has yet to play in the postseason since. But now he will get his shot to exorcise some inner demons that played out in that series.

No date has been confirmed as to when the NHL will begin its 24-team postseason; they did announce that July 10th is when full training camps can commence. Varlamov, who went back home during quarantine, has yet to return to New York to take part in small workouts during Phase 2 of the league’s return to play plan.

When camp does begin, it’s assumed most likely he will get the nod from head coach Barry Trotz when, and if, the Islanders begin their qualifying round series with the Florida Panthers.

Varlamov was basically the number-one in net for the Isles in the regular season — his first on Long Island. He got a majority of starts with Thomas Greiss as his 1A. Varlamov got off to a solid start and played well the first three months of the season, which garnered him All-Star consideration. After that, he began to struggle, as did the Islanders as a whole, mostly in part due to injuries to key players.

Before the coronavirus pandemic shutdown the Isles’ season and the entire NHL for that matter, Varlamov had begun to play somewhat better. Still, he had gone winless in last five starts.

That stretch of losing is now thrown out the window.

It’s essentially a new season for the Islanders, and it’s a fresh start for every player in that locker room. For Varlamov, the stakes being raised — plus not appearing in the postseason in quite a while — should be enough motivation for him to redeem himself from his ugly performance all those years ago.

The Russian native was brought to the organization last summer because of what GM Lou Lamoriello saw in him. It’s no secret that Lamoriello wanted Varlamov and only him two years prior, as several reports have stated before he went and signed free agent Robin Lehner to a one-year deal.

Some can believe that narrative has run its course, but it still has value now more than ever. The playoffs are a different animal. It’s where the stars shine the brightest, and any moment can change the outcome of the game or series. Especially goalies. They can be the x-factor in a series, and if they get hot, they can steal games.

The Islanders need Varlamov to be that clutch performer.

Every postseason there’s always a player who needs or wants to make a statement. Well, in the Isles case, Semyon Varlamov is one of them.

He’s seeking redemption, and hopefully, he is able to get it.

 

Ranking the most memorable no goal calls in Islanders history

The history of the New York Islanders is filled with goals.

From Tonelli to Nystrom, Bossy’s 50 in 50, (Pat) LaFontaine from the blue line, Shawn Bates’ penalty shot and most recently, Josh Bailey OT playoff winner. But there’s also the other side of the coin, where there were big goals scored which were called back. Even this year, there were a few instances of when the Isles found the back of the net, only to not be awarded the goal (Anders Lee against the Rangers ring a bell?)

Some of them were definitely more memorable than others, and a few even had a lasting effect on not only the game, but for a period of time.

We start with a double dose of bad luck from last year’s playoffs.

MATHEW BARZAL IN GAME ONE AND DEVON TOEWS IN GAME TWO VERSUS CAROLINA

Note: the Islanders had pretty much outplayed the Canes in the first two games of their second-round tilt. But somehow they weren’t victorious. That was aided by not getting the calls when Barzal and Toews both lit the lamp.

Barzal’s goal, which would have given the Islanders the first goal and lead of the series, was reversed after it was determined that captain Anders Lee interfered — weakly I will add — with Hurricanes’ goaltender Petr Mrazek. Instead, the goal was disallowed and the Islanders didn’t score the rest of the game and ended up falling in overtime 1-0.

Two days later, the Isles were leading 1-0 on a goal from Barzal when it looked like Toews had doubled the lead late in the second period. Aucontraire. Toews rush to the net led to the puck caroming off his skate and of Canes’ netminder Curtis McElhinney into the back of the net. Again, the tally was called back and what followed basically changed the entire series. The Isles went scoreless after that moment and Carolina would score twice just before the ten-minute mark in the third and steal the game and a 2-0 series lead heading back to Raleigh.

BRENDAN WITT’S TYING GOAL IN GAME FOUR IN THE ’07 PLAYOFFS

The Islanders had gone toe-to-toe in their best-of-seven quarterfinal matchup in 2007 with the number-one seeded Buffalo Sabres but still found themselves down 2-1 heading into game four.

Game four was a tight affair, with the teams combining for four goals of the night in the first period. But down 3-2 in the dying minutes of the third, it looked as though the Isles had tied it.

With 1:42 left in regulation, d-man Brendan Witt had pushed the puck past Buffalo goalie Ryan Miller. But it was waved off when the referees determined that Miller had been pushed into before Witt scored.

The scene that occurred after the call was ugly and effectively ended any chance of the Isles sending the series back to Buffalo for a pivotal game five.

Ted Nolan: “I don’t care what anyone says, that’s a goal. Witt banged it in the goal and then [Miller] got pushed.”

Garth Snow: “You tell me, what should I think? It’s been like this since I was a player in 2001. Calls like this happen [to the Isles] on a regular basis.”

That call basically was the deciding factor in the series too, as the Islanders’ season ended a few days later in a blowout by the Sabres.

VANEK KICKED IT IN

This call probably is the most notorious regular season disallowed goal in the last decade for the organization.

Thomas Vanek, who was with Buffalo during that aforementioned playoff series six years prior, was brought in by the Isles via trade earlier that ’13-’14 season in return for Matt Moulson. He, John Tavares, and Kyle Okposo had formed one of the most formidable lines as the season progressed.

In late January, the Isles hosted the St. Louis Blues in a Saturday matinee with both needing points to stay in the race for the postseason. The two teams played a competitive game needing overtime to decide the winner. And it looked like it was over when Vanek had beat St. Louis goalie Jaroslav Halak. Then it happened.

The referees conferred and the goal was called back for an “intentional kicking motion”. The entire building was in shock and livid to a degree.

Vanek and the Islanders never recovered. They lost the game 4-3 in the shootout and lost the second of what would be five games in a row.

“I don’t know if it’s who we are,” Vanek said after that call. “If that’s Pittsburgh or a top team, that’s maybe a goal. It’s just a terrible call. We all know what a kicking motion is.”

The Isles season also took a downward spiral following that day. A month later, Vanek was traded for next what in essence was a bag of pucks.

TOM KUHNHACKL’S SNIPE THAT BEGAN A SWEEP

Everyone knew that the Islanders needed to come out flying for game one of the first round a year ago. With a raucous Coliseum crowd behind them, they did just that. But not even three minutes in, depth forward Tom Kuhnhackl ripped a shot past Matt Murray for the first goal of the series, which sent the crowd into pandemonium.

As you can see from the clip above, Kuhnhackl didn’t know whether to celebrate because the play might not have counted. He was right. The replay showed that as he entered the zone, Matt Martin was still inside the blue and couldn’t drag his skate to get onside.

The goal was called off, but the moment itself set the tone for the entire series.

Jordan Eberle would score a minute later and the Islanders would never look back, winning all four games.

Islanders players skating once again provides sense of normalcy

Josh Bailey was among the first groups of players to resume skating yesterday at the New York Islanders’ practice facility after almost three months away.

Bailey was joined along with Matt Martin, Johnny Boychuk, Cal Clutterbuck, and goalie Thomas Greiss, as they took part in the start of Phase 2 of the NHL’s Return to Play Plan. Scott Mayfield, Devon Toews, and Bridgeport Sound Tigers netminder, Christopher Gibson, were all too inside Isles facility, but there was no confirmation as to whether they skated.

Still, in that one instance, it felt as though a sense of normalcy had returned for the first time in a long time.

“It was nice to feel the puck,” Bailey told reporters over a Zoom conference call late yesterday afternoon. “We didn’t go too crazy on Day 1, but nonetheless, it was fun to get out there.”

Bailey’s quote was a nice reminder of how long it’s been since hockey has been at the forefront of players and the fan’s minds.

When the Isles’, and the entire NHL, had to put the season on hold back in early March, the team was struggling to stay in the mix for the postseason. They were on the Western Canada swing of their schedule and were trying to find a win after a 0-3-4 skid. But all that took a backseat to real life when the coronavirus pandemic began to rock the country and the world. What followed was a lot of fear, angst, and uncertainty.

It was a good first step,” said Bailey. “I don’t know if there’s been a hardest part. Just the unknown. Even outside of hockey, the unknown. We can all relate to that. You didn’t know when things could potentially start up.”

Hearing Boychuk and Clutterbuck were out there with Bailey also was a great development.

Boychuk, who took a skate to the face in the Islanders’ loss to the Montreal Canadiens the week prior to the stoppage, was missing from the Islanders’ lineup, and his status to return was up in the air. The latter, Clutterbuck, he to was also trying to re-establish himself before the hiatus. He had returned at the end of February, but it was clear he still wasn’t 100% after suffering a cut to the wrist when Bruins’ forward Patrice Bergeron’s skate caught him back in December.

The last two of the group, Martin and Greiss, might have been the least surprising to be there. Martin had stayed on Long Island through the entire shutdown with wife Sydney, who is expected to give birth in July. Greiss followed Martin’s lead, but he spent most of his quarantine working out and finding new hobbies with his wife, Brittany. 

More groups of Islanders are expected to be making their way on the ice again, and soon the coaching staff. Which means it’s full steam ahead to the proposed opening of training camp next month and playoffs.

Things have changed for a lot of people,” Bailey added. “it’s not a typical schedule we’d be used to. Instead of getting ready for a training camp that goes into the beginning of the season, you’re starting off with playoffs. That’s even more motivation to be sure you’re ready to go.”

Bailey is right. Things aren’t the same. But yesterday felt a little different. Normalcy seemed to set back in.

And hopefully, it stays that way moving forward.

The one Islander who will have benefited most from the break during the season

Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Islanders

The New York Islanders, and the rest of the other 23 teams who will participate in the 24-team playoff, now know they’re officially back.

This morning, Isles g.m. Lou Lamoriello told reporters that the team will open its training facility back up on Monday, this beginning Phase 2 of the league’s Return to Play program.

”We have satisfied all protocols,” Lamoriello added on a Friday conference call, referring to the extensive list of requirements established last week by the NHL/NHLPA. “We’ve checked all the boxes.

The latest development was to be heard expected but is still exciting not just for the fans and coaches, but the players as well. Several of the club’s key guys who were injured prior to the season being suspended due to the coronavirus outbreak — Adam Pelech, Casey Cizikas, Johnny Boychuk — will all be back and ready to go. For the players who weren’t dealing with any ailments but had been maybe feeling the effects of the grind of an 82-game season, they should feel fresh and re-energized, as they were basically given another offseason in a sense.

But if there’s one guy, in particular, who will have benefited the most from the long hiatus, it’s J.G. Pageau.

I’m sure you’re asking yourselves, why Pageau over someone like Pelech — he’s coming back from a season-ending Achilles injury — or Cizikas or Boychuk (skate cuts), or even Mathew Barzal? Well, there are a few things to account for when it comes to the Quebec native.

Pageau, after the Islanders traded for him at the deadline in late February, only got to suit up in a handful of games with his new team. The pressure was on him to perform immediately and give the Islanders one of the missing ingredients they were lacking all season — a third-line center. And it’s not to say Pageau didn’t get off to a good start — he scored twice in his first two games — but there’s still a learning curve when it comes to head coach Barry Trotz’s system.

Trotz pointed out last week that having he and d-man Andy Greene getting in a full training camp of sorts will help both individually and the team as a whole.

The break will have also helped Pageau mentally.

Getting traded in season, there comes a lot of things off the ice that are in the back of a players’ mind (finding a place, getting settled, etc.). Pageau explained such when he chatted with the NHL Network a month ago. But with not having played a game in three months, the 27-year-old should have all his bearings in order, which will allow him to be dialed in on his game entirely.

Pageau is known to be a playoff performer, so this kind of break and knowing he’s on a club that has something to play for again will have motivated him to elevate his game from regular season to playoff mode.

The last appearance for Pageau in the postseason was in 2017 with the Senators, who made a shocking run to Eastern Conference Finals. That spring was only the second time Pageau experienced playoff hockey, and he played some of the best hockey of his career (eight goals in 19 games).

Again, that might not sound like a long time, but for any NHL player, being out of the playoffs for that long, the fire and passion is definitely burning inside.

J.G. Pageau hasn’t experienced a victory yet as a part of the Islanders; they were 0-4-3 since his arrival. All of that is now in the past. A new season is set to begin.

What that means for the Isles is they will now get to see why they traded for Pageau and signed him for the long haul.

And they can thank the break for allowing that to happen.

 

The Islanders could be very dangerous come the playoffs, here’s why

Yesterday was a very good day if you’re the New York Islanders.

Not only did the organization get the green light to resume construction on their future home at Belmont Park — still slated to be ready by the start of the 2021-22 season — but general manager Lou Lamoriello revealed the exciting news that d-man Adam Pelech would be ready for when the team would begin training camp as a part of the NHL second phase of the NHL’s Return To Play Plan.

“Adam is cleared to participate in the small number of people that are allowed on the ice as if the injury never took place,” Lamoriello told reporters via a conference call.

Pelech, 25, suffered an Achilles Tendon injury prior to the Isles’ contest with the New Jersey Devils back on January 2. The setback led him to miss the rest of the season before it was postponed in mid-March due to the coronavirus outbreak.

“He has clearance, so does Casey Cizikas,’ Lamoriello added. “There are no injury of any player that I am aware of that should hold them back from participating immediately.”

The development of Pelech being healthy for the start of next year was one of the major things Islander fans had been worrying about even before the season was suspended. He is regarded as the Isles’ best defenseman and their most consistent presence on the backend. And the effect of him missing easily took its toll on the team.

Before his injury, the Islanders were 25-10-3 with Pelech in the lineup this season. After, they went a measly 10-13-7 and went from one of the top teams in the East to almost falling out of playoff contention.

Having Pelech back means that head coach Barry Trotz has his top defensive pairing back with him and Ryan Pulock; the pairing is one of the most underappreciated around the league. It also allows the pressure to be taken off some of the veterans like Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk. Those two seemed to struggle with the workload once Pelech was out. And last, Andy Greene can settle into the number-six spot on the blueline. Lamoriello made it abundantly clear that he traded for Greene because of Pelech’s absence in the top-four. Greene did a nice job since he’s come on the scene, but now he’will get the chance to play a role he can truly shine in.

Beyond Pelech, there are other reasons why the Isles being fully healthy could make them very dangerous if and when they step on the ice to face the Florida Panthers in the qualifying round of the playoffs.

Trotz will be able to roll all four lines again

No team in the entire league needs to be at full health more than the Islanders do. Because they lack those skill guys on offense and their defensive style, they need all four lines going to be successful. The results in the past have proven in the past when they have four complete lines, they are a very hard team to play against. Having all four lines rolling will allow Trotz to not have to rely on just one or two lines to produce all the offense.

The fourth line fully intact

This factor might rank right next to Pelech for how crucial they are to the Isles being a complete team. Back when the season was put on hiatus, Trotz made it clear that not having Cal Clutterbuck, Matt Martin, and Casey Cizikas together for a lot of this year had a significant effect on the team. That trio is so crucial to the identity of the team and the way they are expected to play, especially Cizikas. Cizikas, who suffered a leg laceration in February, is the hardest working player on the ice and a crucial part of the Islanders’ special teams.

The top guns and the veterans will be rested and re-motivated

Yes, it will have been four months since they played a game, but the players the Islanders depend on most for production will have had the time to reset and will be revving to go. Mathew Barzal was carrying the club for a number of weeks leading up to the hiatus with Anders Lee and Jordan Eberle. Those three will have the chance to pick up right where they left off. Josh Bailey, Brock Nelson, Derick Brassard, and Anthony Beauvillier all slowed down after the team’s fantastic run to begin the year. They, too, will get the opportunity to step their games up in the biggest way.

J.G. Pageau, who joined the team at the deadline, will also have had the chance to get more involved with the organization and his new teammates, which is very crucial.

A bolstered defense and a goalie with a chip on his shoulder

We mentioned before about Pelech returning and what it means, but in terms of the whole defense, the entire unit will be able to play to their strengths once again. The Islanders had difficulty sticking to their defensive gameplan in the second half of the season, and a lot of it was because their defense wasn’t full and got outworked. So, having all six guys on the same page can give the Isles an advantage they were known for.

For Semyon Varlamov, he’ll get his chance to show he can be a playoff performer. He hasn’t appeared in the postseason since 2014, and it wasn’t a memorable experience either — seven games, 20 goals allowed. Varlamov was having a pretty good campaign until the wheels fell off for him and the team, which should be another incentive for him to come back motivated.

Barry Trotz

There might not be another coach you’d want to have as the one leading you back into battle after such a long time between games. Trotz proved he was able to have this team ready and not suffer a lull this season after they got to the second round of the playoffs last spring. Oh, and how he was able to navigate all those injuries dealt? He’s showed once again just how valuable he is to the entire fabric of the organization. Make no mistake, he will have the Islanders ready for when the games begin again.

A clean slate

Throw out the 16-3-1 start. Throw out all the major injuries. Throw out the 0-4-3 skid before the season was almost canned. It’s a new season now for the Islanders, and the games mean more now. The playoffs are a total crapshoot, and the Isles have just as good a chance of making a deep run as any team in the Eastern Conference. You give a team a renewed sense of purpose, and there could be something special that might come out of it. That’s what the Isles are getting, and they have the opportunity to take full advantage of it.

Now, can we get to training camp already?