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SportsColumnistsNeil Best

Long way to go, but so far Islanders have impressed

They're in first place and giving fans a reason to be excited.

Islanders players congratulate center Valtteri Filppula after scoring

Islanders players congratulate center Valtteri Filppula after scoring a goal against the Canadiens during the first period of a game at Barclays Center on Monday. Photo Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

First rule for those of us who either root for or write about NHL teams: No grand conclusions in early November!

So we must start here by noting the Islanders’ final regular-season game is five months from Tuesday, by which time, who knows, maybe John Tavares will be overcome with nostalgia and start sleeping under an Islanders blankie.

Point is, it’s a long time from now. But fans are allowed to dream, and be excited. Or at least be intrigued.

The Islanders are 8-4-2, even after a disappointing 4-3 shootout loss to the Canadiens at Barclays Center on Monday night, a game in which they blew an early 3-1 lead and that coach Barry Trotz called their worst performance of the season.

Hey, it happens, even to good teams, but it showed something about these Islanders that they did emerge with a point, and extended their streak with at least one to seven games. They also remained alone in first place in the Metropolitan Division.

Not bad for a team that lost its franchise player, Tavares, to free agency and got nothing in return, and widely was expected to be nothing special while toggling between two home arenas, one in Brooklyn and one in Uniondale.

The Giants, Jets, Rangers, Knicks and Nets are under .500, so it could be a long, bleak late autumn and winter around here. Why not have some Islanders buzz to bridge the gap to pitchers and catchers?

Adding to the positivity is the formidable men now in charge of hockey matters.

Lou Lamoriello won three Stanley Cups with the Devils, and on Monday night he became the third man to serve as an NHL general manager for 2,400 games, joining David Poile and Glen Sather.

Trotz won a Stanley Cup with the Capitals five months ago.

Several former Islanders who attended an alumni function at Barclays on Saturday night noted the current players seem to be both more disciplined and more energetic under the watchful eyes of Lamoriello and Trotz.

There are new sheriffs in town, and everyone seems to be on his toes.

They certainly are paying more attention to defense.

Last season, the Islanders allowed a league-worst 293 goals, and were horrendous on penalty kills. This season, with most of the same players, they have allowed 34 goals in 14 games.

The winning formula so far has included solid goaltending from Thomas Greiss and Robin Lehner, and production from the top line of Josh Bailey, Brock Nelson and newly installed captain Anders Lee.

The preternaturally talented second-year man Mathew Barzal has only one goal, but he remains a dynamic skater, puck-handler and playmaker who is a handful for opposing defenses.

There is a healthy mix of veterans and youth, and nice overall balance.

That was evident Monday in the first period, after which the Islanders led, 3-1, behind two goals by Casey Cizikas of the fourth line and one by Valtteri Filppula of the third line.

This time the Islanders did not get enough from their first two lines. “One of those nights, I guess,” Lee said. “We weren’t playing tough enough, strong enough, didn’t get pucks to the net.”

Said Trotz, “In the end, the right team won . . . but we gave a point away, too.”

Again, it’s early. Insanely so. The Jets have not had their bye week yet, and the Yankees have not signed their first free agent. Both local MLS teams still are in the playoffs. Linus probably is still waiting for the Great Pumpkin.

This thing could go in any direction. But first place beats the alternative. So far, so good.

New York Sports