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Frans Nielsen will become 24th Islanders to play 500 games

Frans Nielsen of the Islanders celebrates his second

Frans Nielsen of the Islanders celebrates his second period goal against the New Jersey Devils at Nassau Coliseum on Saturday, March 29, 2014. Credit: Jim McIsaac

BOSTON - Mark Streit knows about being a trailblazer. With 625 NHL games under his belt, the former Islanders captain is the all-time leader in games played by a Swiss-born (and raised) player.

So he knows exactly what it means for Frans Nielsen, the leader in NHL games by a Danish-born player, to play his 500th game Sunday in Buffalo.

"When you come from Denmark or Switzerland, you look at the NHL and go, 'Wow, this is almost impossible.' It's like Mount Everest before anyone was able to climb it," Streit said. "But then guys come over, they try and eventually they break through. It's a message to the younger guys back home that you can do it; doesn't matter if you're 18 or 22 or 25. There is always a possibility if you work hard.

"Frans is one of those pioneers."

It is not just for the young players of Denmark, either. Nielsen is the first of the current Islanders core to reach 500 games with the team and only the 24th player in franchise history to reach that mark.

Not bad for a guy who gets described almost exclusively as "under the radar." He converted yet another shootout goal on Thursday night in Philadelphia, making him 38-for-68 (55.9 percent) in his career, basically the best there is at the game-ending gimmick. But that's all most people know about him.

"I don't think a lot of people do know about him until they play with him or against him," Michael Grabner said.

"Whenever new guys come to the team, they're surprised how good he is even though I'm sure they've faced him before," Josh Bailey said. "They know he's good, but not to the level he really is."

This admiration makes Nielsen uncomfortable. He's as soft-spoken as can be for a 30-year-old guy who is the senior member of this club. But he is an unfailingly straight talker, always willing to assess and criticize his own and his team's play.

"He's very competitive, a guy who works hard, he wears his emotions on his sleeve at times, and when you have that kind of respect and he speaks up, you know it's time to buckle down and respond," John Tavares said. "You never look at Fransie and question the effort."

He's shown a dedication and loyalty to Garth Snow and the Islanders that's been reciprocated in his eight seasons. Snow has rebuffed trade requests for Nielsen numerous times over the years, each time calling Nielsen to assure him the Islanders wouldn't be letting him go.

"Garth, Cappy, Doug [Weight] -- when you have people behind you for a long time who believe in you, that goes a long way," Nielsen said. "I was lucky, too. Getting into this league is so tough. Garth wanted a rebuild and I was here, I got an opportunity, I got a couple years. It's not everybody who gets a couple years to get used to it, to figure your game out. I have Garth to thank a lot for that, believing in me."

For Nielsen, even being a third-round Islanders draft pick in 2002 didn't signify too much. He comes from Herning, a city of 48,000 west of Copenhagen; the big time for a young Danish player was across the Kattegat Strait in Sweden, where Nielsen played from 2001-06.

But the Islanders, under Snow's direction, got Nielsen over to North America in 2006. He played for Bridgeport assistant coach (and then coach) Jack Capuano for the better part of two seasons.

"I remember this skinny little kid who was taking 25-second shifts and racing off the ice," Capuano said. "He concentrated so much on his defensive game, but you knew from practice he had so much flair and skill on the offensive side. As we started to move on, seeing him play on both sides of the puck, you know what he has to offer. But he definitely needed a little encouragement at the start."

By the end of the 2007-08 season, Nielsen was a regular with the Islanders -- the rare 24-year-old forward who cared more about pucks staying out of his own net than scoring goals.

"He's so responsible defensively, I'm sure if he cheated a little more towards the offensive side, he'd have a lot more points," Bailey said. "But he doesn't do it. He's so reliable."

The losing weighed on him, but he quickly signed a four-year, $11-million deal late in the 2011-12 season. He was sure the Islanders were turning a corner.

Nielsen set career highs for goals (25) and points (58) a season ago, but he was basically the last man standing after injuries to Tavares and Kyle Okposo. With greater depth and health, he has totaled nine goals and 28 points this season, more in line with his career averages.

But he's certainly happier.

"We've all been waiting for it. Okie, Johnny, Bails . . . I've always seen the talent, I've always believed in Garth's plan, that it would come to this," Nielsen said. "I'm happy I'm still here when we're better. And we're still a young team, we could be a lot better even. I have a feeling we're going to be scary good soon."

And in all likelihood Nielsen still will be there, quietly doing his thing to solidify the Islanders and inspire a new wave of Danish players to dream bigger.

"Everyone has one goal, and it's to be here," Nielsen said. "It's changed everything and it's something I'm proud of, being a part of that. Not that I've done anything, but just making it here, I think, showed them it's not impossible.

"Every time you put that jersey on, it's an honor to play for this team, in this league. It's still what you dreamt about as a kid. You're living a dream every day and it just flies by."

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