Tuesday, February 22, 2011

An Islander Revival

Much has been made of the Devils' ridiculous splash back into postseason discussion. Their 15-1-2 record is an amazing turnaround for a team that won only 10 of its first 39. While that story continues to unfold with New Jersey visiting Dallas and former captain Jamie Langenbrunner tonight, another rejuvanted team is flying under the radar.

At one point, the New York Islanders dropped 20 of 21 (1-17-3) leading to Jack Capuano taking over behind the bench. It took a while for him to get his first win but eventually, the new coach got his young team to buy in. Believe it or not, the Islanders off yesterday's latest win- a 5-1 domination of the Panthers at Nassau Coliseum in which Matt Moulson notched a hat trick to surge ahead of rookie Michael Grabner for the club lead in goals with 26- this more confident bunch who won their sixth in seven trail eighth Carolina by 11 points entering tonight's game against Toronto. Another team ahead of them in this wild goose chase that includes the Devils, who are one up on the guys from Long Island. Oh. Did we mention that eighth Carolina hosts the seventh ranked Rangers in an all important battle? A Hurricane regulation win ties them for seventh. So, are the Devils and Islanders actually pulling for their bitter rival to snap out of it for just a night?

While that can be debated in sports bars or on Twitter, both clubs have more business to take care of. For the Islanders, who enter having won eight of 11 and are 18-12-2 since that mid-December swoon that threatened their season, they should be fairly confident when Capuano's healthier club takes on the Maple Leafs with a chance to get within two of another team in the hunt for April.

Can former Ranger '04 No.1 pick Al Montoya continue writing his own personal chapter in his third consecutive start with bright Leafs' rookie James Reimer opposing? The 26 year-old Montoya's story is well chronicled with the Cuban American never getting the chance to even start one game for the team who drafted him over in Manhattan where Henrik Lundqvist blocked his path. It's also conveniently forgotten that Montoya wasn't a total scrub, making Planet USA in his second AHL season for the former Hartford Wolf Pack (now Connecticut Whale). But there never was a spot for him with the Rangers using vet Steve Valiquette and then Alex Auld last year. Montoya was eventually dealt to Phoenix where he in one brief cameo, he showed what he could do pitching a shutout and posting a 3-1-0 record with a 2.08 GAA and .925 save percentage in five games- four of which were starts two years ago. The former University of Michigan standout was blocked yet again by the healthy return of Vezina runner-up Ilya Bryzgalov. Ironically, former Ranger property Jason LaBarbera is the backup. Go figure. So, Montoya was shipped to Long Island for one more opportunity. One he hopes to make the most of.

People want to knock us down every day, from what I’ve seen since I’ve been here,” the '04 WJC USA hero said after turning aside 20 of 21 in yesterday's win to improve to 3-0-0 with a 1.23 GAA and a .953 save percentage entering tonight. “You want to play that underdog role. You go out there and play hard and show the rest of the league what you can do.
In an unpredictable year where anything's possible, why not? Who saw the Devils reversing course under Jacques Lemaire playing lights out hockey with no real No.1 caliber D and Johan Hedberg starring over Martin Brodeur minus Zach Parise? In the Islanders, here you have an even better story because it's a younger nucleus coming together and producing three 20-goal scorers with Moulson (26) and surprising Grabner (25) leading the way with John Tavares (23) right behind. Coincidentally, the run has come since Kyle Okposo returned with the former club No.1 pick going 2-7-9 plus-five in 16 games thus far. Speaking of great stories, there's well traveled journeyman P.A. Parenteau finally getting his chance in the bigs and making the most of it with the ex-Ranger third in team scoring with 38 points (14-24-38), already re-signed for next year.

On defense, Travis Hamonic is poised beyond his years playing the kind of solid hockey that has Islander fans excited about the club's future. Already logging important minutes, the 20 year-old from Manitoba has two goals and 15 helpers while resembling the player the team can trust on a revamped blueline that eventually will feature Calvin de haan. Hamonic's play is eerily similar to that of Mark Fayne, who arguably is the best Devil defenseman during their improbable run. Could it really be true that a pair of rookies have been instrumental in each of their teams' turnarounds? Pretty exciting stuff for both Battle clubs.

And while Mike Del Zotto baffles in Year Two on Broadway, the same cannot be said of freshmen tandem Ryan McDonagh and Mike Sauer, who've become John Tortorella's second pair. The theme on all three is they're young and learning the ropes on the fly.

Can the Islanders continue their rise back into the race against a Toronto team that boasts one of the hottest lines in hockey in dangerous trio Nikolai Kulemin-Mikhail Grabovski-Clarke MacArthur? There's also streaky Phil Kessel who's caught fire with his name bandied about a year after coming to be Brian Burke's building block. It shouldn't be easy. But at this point, nothing has fazed Coach Capuano's together team who wants to prove everyone wrong, earning respect. The way they're playing, don't doubt them for a second.

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