Islanders' turnaround a team effort
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Depending on whom you ask in the locker room, you get a different answer as to how the Islanders turned around what seemed to be another disappointing season.
Frans Nielsen pinpointed one shift: The opening shift of the second period at Madison Square Garden on Valentine's Day. The Isles trailed the Rangers 2-0 after one and were in the midst of a five-game losing streak that threatened to sink the season before it was barely one-quarter of the way done.
But Jack Capuano tossed together a crash line of Casey Cizikas, Colin McDonald and Matt Martin to open the second, and they produced a goal by McDonald, 29 seconds in. The Isles won that game in a shootout.
"Who knows,'' Nielsen said after that game. "Maybe that's the shift that turns our season around.''
John Tavares remembers the seven-game homestand that began the following week with losses to the Hurricanes and Bruins, again dropping the Isles three games under .500 and to 2-7-0 at home.
Tavares and his teammates held a players-only meeting.
"We talked about how important it was for our season, how people probably didn't give us much of a chance at that point, but I said, one bounce can really change the whole year,'' Tavares said. "I don't know if there was just one bounce, but something turned for us. Everyone stepped up in their own way, found their roles; when we started to have some success and got some bounces our way, you could feel what we needed to do approaching the games. It was a big turn around in our mentality.''
And even further along was Cizikas' goal in Sunrise, Fla., with 7:05 to go in a game the Isles led 3-0 before the Panthers charged back to tie. There are any number of big moments and big goals, but the disparity in what some of the Islanders said was their memory of the turning point highlights what this Islanders team has found that recent teams did not.
They are the sum of their parts, not Tavares and his band of merry followers. Tavares is a bona fide Hart Trophy candidate, but only because his teammates have seized their own moments and provided strong team play.
"We always have to have 20 guys going to be successful,'' Evgeni Nabokov said. "Once we learned how to do that, we started to get on a little bit of a roll.''
It was made possible by unsung players like McDonald, a career minor-leaguer who had 17 points this season at age 28; Thomas Hickey and Brian Strait, waiver pickups whose play this season has assured them of spots on defense in this postseason and Cizikas, the 21-year-old rookie who has been a welcome shot of youth on the fourth line.
At the top end, Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey have fulfilled the promise of their starts as top-10 draft picks, combining with Nielsen to be the effective second line the Islanders haven't had. With Michael Grabner's 16 goals on the third line, the Islanders have had a more balanced attack than in several years.
All that fueled the 16-6-6 run after Tavares' talk, and an 11-2-4 finish to the season, including 5-0-1 at home. The Islanders still will be serious underdogs this postseason, but that matters very little to their inexperienced but focused group.
"This is the time of year they all talk about and they can't get away from the TV, even though they've been disappointed in the past,'' said assistant coach Doug Weight, the only member of the team or coaching staff with a Stanley Cup ring. "Now it's here for us. It didn't come soon enough, but the guys just committed.''