Brock Nelson steps up his game for Islanders

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Islanders player Brock Nelson skates past the bench Islanders player Brock Nelson skates past the bench for hi-fives after scoring a second period goal against the Ottawa Senators. (Sept. 29, 2013) Photo Credit: AP

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Arthur Staple Arthur Staple

Staple, with Newsday since 1997, has covered high school sports, hockey and football.

DALLAS - Brock Nelson's goal Friday, which tied the score at 1 in the third period, was his second in three games, a sign that perhaps the 22-year-old rookie is starting to find his scoring touch.

He has most certainly found an edge to his play. Nelson has not been shy to tangle with opposing players, offering a few after-whistle shoves and stick whacks the past several games. He delivered a pretty serious snow shower to Avalanche goaltender Semyon Varlamov during Friday's game and, on another occasion, dumped a Colorado defenseman into the net as the whistle blew.

Not exactly highlights to put on the Calder Trophy ballot, but those are little things that the Islanders' coaching staff want to see from Nelson and the rest of the team's rookies.

"When you engage that way, you're more into the game," Nelson said. "You get bumped around and give a few shots and it does help get you going."

Coach Jack Capuano and his assistants made a point of emphasis to tell the cast of five rookies who have dressed for the Islanders this season -- Nelson, Ryan Strome, Calvin de Haan, Aaron Ness and Matt Donovan -- that there's no time to stand and watch. And there are ways other than scoring points to, well, score points with the coaches and your teammates.

"There's a reason young guys like Brock are here," Capuano said. "He has the ability to do what he needs to do every night. We can live with mistakes, as long as there's effort there. Brock's been giving that. Being physical is one way to be involved."

Poulin on the rise

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When Evgeni Nabokov went down with a groin injury in the first period of a 5-4 shootout win over the Red Wings on Nov. 16, Capuano hoped that Kevin Poulin would seize the opportunity to show he could be counted upon.

That didn't happen, and it was certainly far from all on the 23-year-old goaltender. His team already was into its mistake-filled slide from .500; Poulin wasn't especially good, save for his dazzling performance in a 3-2 shootout win over the Sharks -- as it happens, that was the next time the Islanders won after beating Detroit, going 0-8-2 -- so it was a combination of factors.

Poulin is back as the temporary No. 1 again now because Nabokov is sidelined by a quad strain. But things are different for the goaltender and his team, both of whom are playing markedly better.

"He’s just not as busy for me, watching him now," Capuano said. "I think he's calmed down some parts of his game and he looks very controlled, very focused in there."

Poulin's 30-save performance in Denver lifted him to 4-1-0 in his last five appearances. His 8-12-0 record, 3.10 GAA and .895 save percentage won't win him any awards, but his greater comfort level is clear.

Can they make playoffs?

It's difficult to compare past seasons with this one, given the first-time playoff format in use this season, and last season's shortened schedule is thrown out. But going back to 2008-09 in an 82-game schedule, 17 Eastern Conference teams were at least eight points out of a playoff spot as of Jan. 11. That is where the Islanders sat entering Saturday night's games.

Only one team recovered to make it: the 2010-11 Buffalo Sabres. Ryan Miller put the team on his back in goal, but that squad's far and away leading scorer? Thomas Vanek. So yes, it can be done.

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