These Islanders have learned many hard lessons in their growing pains the past few years. The one that should stand out for the 2013-14 season, one that engenders more promise for this team than any in a decade, is that a slow start to the season is a sure way to irrelevance.
The numbers are quite stark: The last two 82-game seasons, the Isles were near the bottom of the Eastern Conference by Thanksgiving and unable to get off the mat. A 4-10-3 start in 2010-11 got Scott Gordon fired, and the Isles were 5-18-5 just before Christmas.
The next year, the Isles were 5-11-4 around Thanksgiving, 15-20-6 at the halfway mark and doomed to another lottery pick.
Even last season, the Isles were 4-7-3 after an early five-game losing streak and headed for another season of futility before a furious finish got them to the playoffs.
"We're trying to carry over the way we played last year, what we individually brought to the table," John Tavares said. "You really could feel how we came together as a team and the sense we got in the room before games, how confident we felt by the end of the season. We knew what we had to do and we went out and did it, it wasn't just a lot of talking. It was doing it with our actions. Our focus is how can we keep that identity we built, make sure we carry it over. It's what we want to accomplish early on."
And continue, with Tavares leading the way. Wearing the 'C' for the first time and coming off his Hart Trophy finalist season, Tavares is a true star. Last season showed he needs a strong supporting cast to achieve real success, and the Isles kept their playoff team nearly intact in order to keep building from within.
"Everyone knows it's going to be tougher," Jack Capuano said. "Our new division has a lot of tough teams and we're not going to surprise anyone."
Kyle Okposo, who shuffled from a so-so regular season to be a force in the six-game series loss to the Penguins, gets first crack at the top-line right wing spot with Tavares and Matt Moulson. The other six returning forwards in Friday's opening night lineup are grouped together: Josh Bailey, Frans Nielsen and Michael Grabner, as well as the energy line of Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Colin McDonald. The Andrew MacDonald-Travis Hamonic and Thomas Hickey-Lubomir Visnovsky defense pairs stay the same from last season as well, at least to start.
Familiarity won't be a problem. These Islanders know one another well and know what's at stake.
"October is important, but so is February. So is April," said Evgeni Nabokov, who is back as No. 1 goaltender. "Consistency is what we need most, for the whole season."