The Islanders, by all rights, should not be feeling good about themselves coming out of the three-day, NHL-wide holiday break. They sit in last in the Metropolitan Division, 15th out of 16 teams in the Eastern Conference and 28th out of 30 in the league.
And yet, with 44 games left in the season, the Islanders are not out of it. Despite some truly lousy and fragile stretches, the Islanders could take a small sense of confidence into this week's break, having gone 3-2-2 in their previous seven games.
True, that record could very easily have been 6-1-0 were it not for an overtime breakdown to lose a point to the Canadiens, a late-game meltdown to blow a comfortable lead over the Lightning and a third-period takedown by the bigger, better Ducks, who imposed their will to overcome a two-goal deficit.
But this is a team that had previously gone 10 straight games without a win, 10 straight on the road without a point and 16 straight without a regulation win. So the Islanders will take any positive signs.
"We had certain guys that have finally contributed offensively, and we obviously needed that," Jack Capuano said before he returned to Long Island for Friday's practice. The Islanders return to action Saturday at home against the Devils. "We've hung around in games against some good teams. Even though we've lost some of those, we won a couple recently and that should give us some confidence going forward here."
Michael Grabner has three goals in the past three games. Casey Cizikas chipped in with a goal in Detroit, set up by Colin McDonald in his first game back from being a healthy scratch for four straight.
Perhaps the biggest difference has been the presence of Evgeni Nabokov in goal. He is 2-1-2 with a 1.96 goals-against average and .928 save percentage since returning from a groin injury. In addition, the defense has been better for longer stretches since the 38-year-old goaltender returned.
"You can't hear it up top, but Nabby's always talking on the ice," Capuano said. "It's big for the younger guys."
There is still a mountain to climb for a team that has 20 regulation losses in 37 games. Games like tomorrow's, within the division, are essentially must-wins.
"We've done some good things," Capuano said, "but there's a lot more work to do."
Notes & quotes:Lubomir Visnovsky (concussion), the only Islanders regular on injured reserve, still has not been cleared to resume even regular off-ice workouts. He has been out since Oct. 20 . . . The Islanders will practice at the University of Minnesota on Monday between games against the Wild and the Bruins. Kyle Okposo, Thomas Vanek and Aaron Ness all played for the Golden Gophers.