Brian Strait, finally healthy, ready to make impact with Islanders
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Brian Strait's first season with the Islanders didn't go exactly according to plan.
A waiver pick-up signed days before the start of the lockout-shortened season, Strait earned a place in the Isles' defense. After six games, the Islanders signed him to a three-year contract extension.
A month later, Strait broke his left ankle on the ice and missed two months. He returned for the final four games of the regular season and the playoffs.
After everything that happened in 2013, including a playoff loss to his former teammates in Pittsburgh, Strait, 25, now understands the difficulty of not only staying healthy in the NHL, but being successful.
"It's tough to win," Strait said following an appearance at Islanders Hockey Camp at IceWorks in Syosset on Wednesday. "We felt we put our best effort forward against Pittsburgh and when you fall short it's a tough pill to swallow.
"Now we know what it takes to get there," he said.
The Isles will open the 2013-14 season with their highest expectations in recent memory after making the playoffs for the first time since 2007. The team still hasn't won a playoff series since 1993, but Strait can already sense the excitement for the new season.
"It's going to be a little different when we all get back here," Strait said. "I think there's going to be some more people around here watching us with a close eye now that we've kind of made a name for ourselves."
One person who won't be returning is Strait's fellow defenseman and former Islanders captain, Mark Streit. The Islanders traded his rights to the Flyers before free agency began, and he signed a four-year deal with Philadelphia.
"Obviously when you lose your captain it's a big piece of the puzzle that's missing," Strait said. "I think a lot of the chemistry is going to be there still. It's going to be tough to replace Mark, but hopefully it works out."
With the added pressure looming, Strait said it's important for the Isles to get back to how they were playing during a strong final month last season (8-1-4).
"We've just got to stay level-headed and work toward our goal," Strait said. "Ultimately our goal is to win hockey games and make the playoffs and have fun doing it."
When the Islanders reached the playoffs last season, Strait made sure he was part of the fun.
After managing just four assists in 19 regular-season games, Strait scored the opening goal during a 6-4 win over the Penguins in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
But Strait knows that to be a presence, he needs to be on the ice more than he has been recently. In 2011-12 with Pittsburgh, Strait injured his elbow, missed more than a month and was demoted to the AHL. With all that time on the mend, Strait has only seen the ice in 31 NHL games during his three seasons in the NHL.
"I want to be healthy the whole season, but sometimes like last year it's out of your control," Strait said. "I feel if I can stay healthy, then I can be very productive for the team and will help accomplish our team goals."