Four years ago, the run-up to the Olympic hockey tournament didn't have much fanfare for Mark Streit. He was going into his second Olympics as the Swiss captain but wasn't terribly excited about what was happening to his NHL career.
"I think I was a healthy scratch seven straight games before I left [for Turin]," Streit said of his time as a 29-year-old rookie with the Canadiens. "It's a little different now."
And not just because a box of hockey gloves with the Swiss team logo and Streit's name arrived at Nassau Coliseum before last night's 4-2 loss to the Devils, a small sign of respect for a player with a higher profile.
Streit is more than just a household name in his home country, which he'll serve as captain again in Vancouver. He's the most unlikely NHL player to be among the top 10 in ice time, the anchor of the Islanders' defense and the quarterback of a power play that scored twice during a five-minute advantage in the second period.
The Isles failed to hold a 2-1 lead and dropped their first home game in the last seven.
Streit proved himself through last season's misery, and he's giving exactly the same sort of consistent effort now that the Islanders are in the playoff chase.
"He's a guy you don't have to think a whole lot about," Scott Gordon said. "You know what you're going to get every night."
No one knew what Streit had to offer when the Islanders gathered for training camp before last season. He had spent three years with the Canadiens with, as he put it, "a tag on my forehead" - a defenseman who offered more offense than defense, a player who played more fourth-line left wing and power-play point than anything else.
With a depleted defense right from the start of last season, Streit was pressed into being a 25-minute player. And he hasn't looked back.
After averaging 25:13 last season and finishing with an improbable 56 points and plus-5 rating for a last-place team, Streit is still carrying the load of minutes. He's seventh in the league with a 25:36 average, out against every team's top line.
"You can't join every rush, you can't lead every rush," said Streit, who did join the rush early and hit a post but looked a bit tired at the end of the night. "Just a little bit of managing your energy. But some nights you feel great, you can go, go, go, and some nights you have to conserve a bit."
It's even more of an anomaly considering he didn't start logging major minutes until he was 32. Gordon still not-so-secretly hopes the Swiss team misses the medal round so his top defenseman can get at least a few days of much-needed rest, but Streit doesn't foresee any problems.
"It's still on the smaller ice, which I'm used to now," he said. "And I know the guys I'm playing against a lot better."
That didn't hurt him too much in 2006, when the Swiss, anchored by Streit, shocked the Czech Republic and Canada before falling to Sweden in the quarterfinals. He was a revelation for those few days in Italy, but the Canadiens didn't find room for him as a regular.
"Nobody really knew about him,'' Gordon said. "Montreal didn't know what they had, and he was right under their noses."