Arthur Staple Arthur Staple

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

Micheal Haley remembers Sept. 17, 2009, very well. So does Kyle Okposo. So did many of the 9,217 on hand at Nassau Coliseum on Tuesday night.

What happened in a preseason game nearly 18 months ago should not have a big effect on what happened Tuesday night. But in that exhibition game in Calgary, then-Flames defenseman Dion Phaneuf leveled Okposo with a blindside shoulder to the head.

Okposo missed the rest of the preseason with a concussion. And the Islanders who were there that night, Haley included, always remember to look for Phaneuf across the ice now.

"You always know he's out there looking for the big hit," Haley said. "And we want to make it known that if you're looking for the big hit, if you're going to hit our guys all over the ice, there's going to be consequences."

So Phaneuf, now the captain of the Leafs, threw one of his big hits Tuesday night, tossing Justin DiBenedetto into the end boards, cleanly, with a bit less than 14 minutes gone in the second period.

And Haley, the fourth-line enforcer/banger who was playing his 13th game of the season, jumped right up and knocked Phaneuf over, drawing a deserved roughing penalty.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

"He must have thought it was a dirty hit," Phaneuf said. "I didn't have the puck, so I don't know why he would hit me."

Phaneuf was playing dumb. He knows why he's booed when he touches the puck at Nassau Coliseum, and why this young, tightly knit Islanders team has an eye out for him.

It's the sort of tight-knit bond that can get the Islanders in trouble, as has happened twice in the past month. Some of the Isles' actions from the game with the Penguins on Feb. 11 and Trevor Gillies' 10-game suspension for his hit a week ago are tough to defend; tougher still when Gillies' teammates defend him, loudly, to anyone who asks.

But the Internet chatter and television commentator criticisms tend to fade when you look at the Isles' 21-14-5 record since Dec. 15. They suddenly seem less like a band of vengeful thugs than a young, scrappy team that refuses to be pushed around, that's defending its turf as an emerging squad the way the Penguins might or the Caps might or any of the other teams that have rebuilt from scratch in the last decade.

"We don't forget that kind of stuff," Okposo said. "We want to be a team that's hard to play against -- not just [Phaneuf], but everyone."

So that's where Haley comes in. He's not yet 25, another young player on a young team, but he's one of the players -- with Matt Martin, and with Gillies to a certain extent -- who is along for the ride to make sure no opponents feel they can run over the Islanders, who showed again Tuesday night that their top nine forwards could measure up with more than a few clubs in the East.

"We can't get pushed around," Haley said. "What commentators say about us, that's their job. My job is to try and limit as many people who want to take liberties with our guys as possible.

"It's not about what [Phaneuf] did to Kyle in Calgary. But we've got a young team and we don't necessarily have the guys, the [Derek] Boogaards, the guys people are scared of. We've got Z [Zenon Konopka], and we've got me and Matt [Martin], who guys don't necessarily know about. So we play with a chip on our shoulder. We're having fun, but we're also out to show people we're not going to be pushed around."

The conversation is starting to turn. The Islanders are not the out-of-control, ragtag band of outsiders. They're a hungry, young group, protecting their turf, with long memories.

It's amazing what a bunch of wins will do for you.