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Islanders' Nielsen draws praise from coach

Maybe we're all Islanders for living here, as the hockey team's ad campaign suggests, but even the Islanders are not all Islanders, in terms of geographical roots. A collection of Americans, Canadians, a Czech, an Austrian, a Finn, a Korean-born Yank ...

And the first Dane ever to make it to the NHL; Frans Nielsen.

As Islanders coach Scott Gordon noted, "even if they're all Canadians or all Americans, they all might bring individual styles," and the idea is to fit into a team concept. Which Gordon believes his mostly young team is beginning to do, going into tonight's game against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden.

Nielsen, a 24-year-old center from Herning, Denmark, serves as a handy example of the possibilities. "He skates well, has good skills, competes. He's a great athlete; he's smart," Gordon said. "He has the makeup."

Throughout this often-difficult 17-33-6 season, Gordon has offered unsolicited praise for the man he calls "Fronzie." In 33 games, he has only three goals and 14 assists, but Nielsen seemed to fit quickly into Gordon's forechecking system.

In Sweden, where he first played professionally, Nielsen played an entirely different style but polished his English in a locker room that included American and Canadian teammates. And Russians, too. The biggest adjustment in coming to the United States, and especially to the Islanders, he said, was the way "we're always getting new guys on the team. In Sweden, guys stayed a long time."

Still, the height of unpleasantness for him this year was missing more than a month on the injured list. "Honestly, I did tons of mistakes, but [Gordon] talked to me every day," Neilsen said. "My game always has been about my skating, and that's what they want us to do here.

"The big thing is I'm allowed to make a mistake and still get ice time. I don't have to be afraid of playing. At the beginning of the year, there was a lot of thinking, and now you just do it. It's getting better."

In the last two games, Nielsen's line has accounted for all three of the team's goals. His own goal, plus his shootout goal, were indispensible in Monday's victory over Pittsburgh.

What mistakes Nielsen makes, Gordon said, "are more in the small areas. Part of it is experience. These guys all played well [Monday], especially the defense, taking away time and space against a team that's hard to play against.

"It's how you think the game. It's knowing where to go, what to do; that's what simplifies the game."

The first half of the season, Gordon said, was converting that knowledge into instinct. Earning citizenship, in a way, in the big leagues.

Islanders at Rangers

Tonight, 7 p.m.

TV: MSG, MSG Plus

Radio: WMJC (94.3), WEPN (1050)

New York Sports