THE MORNING SKATE — Winning as a Team, the Islanders Control Their Own Destiny

Kevin Schultz

With a 7-1-1 record in their last nine, the Islanders have come around at exactly the right time. These players have closed seasons strong before — they closed the 2010-11 season with a run a few games over .500 in the final two months — but this time they did it without the disastrous start that has torpedoed recent seasons.

There was a five-game slide in February and a 1-3 homestand in late March that, while not seasons killer, looked like they came from a team that just didn’t know how to finish. The one in that 1-3 homestand was a shutout against the Panthers, also the first win in their current 7-1-1 run. The others were a combination of hot teams (Pittsburgh) and blow leads.

All of a sudden, this is a team that appears to have a killer instinct. Instead of falling back on their heels and wilting late in games, they seem to have developed a taste for blood.

Take Tuesday’s game against Philly. They didn’t completely outplay the Flyers the whole game, but when they found themselves up 2-1 in the third, they only pushed harder. They would get a lucky break on John Tavares’ goal, started by an anything but lucky 2-on-1 rush, and added an insurance marker on the empty net.

Throughout the rebuild the Islanders have blown a lot of late game leads, and for the first 30 or so games this year it looked like that hadn’t changed. Then, almost out of the blue, it did change.

Evgeni Nabokov has stopped giving up soft goals almost overnight, with a .945 save percentage during this nine-game run. He’s played a huge part in this streak and could be the MVP of these nine games, although he certainly hasn’t been the MVP over the course of the year (he’s still got a .908 save percentage at home, a mark that didn’t cross over .900 until Tuesday night).

But you can say similar things about the rest of the team. For much of the season the first line has carried the Islanders, and they’ve been fine lately, but the second line of Frans Nielsen, Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey has stepped up considerably in recent weeks. They had been missing for stretches earlier on. To be specific, Okposo had a goal and three assist in his first 20 games. In the last 20, he’s been 3-10-13.

On defense, the emergence of Thomas Hickey and Lubomir Visnovsky has been clear. The offensive minded pair pushes the play up ice to the tune of relative corsi marks of 11.8 and 15.2, respectively. Those are the two best marks on the entire team, save for John Tavares. They’ve allowed the usually overworked Mark Streit, whose defensive skills have tailed off a bit, to be a part of the third pair and play fewer minutes while still performing all of his regular power play duties.

It’s hard to say it’s been just one player leading this team, as Tavares has done for stretches over the past couple years. All of a sudden, the Islanders appear as though the whole team is believing in themselves and going in for the finisher when leading at the end of the game. They’ve got eight games left and they’ve now earned the right to decide their own playoff fate. It’s up to them and no one else to either make the best of, or mess up, the opportunity.

The atmosphere at the Coliseum for Saturday’s Rangers/Islanders game should be something else. After what we’ve seen from the fans last Saturday against Tampa and Tuesday against Philly, you know it’ll be rocking regardless of what happens in Boston tonight. On Ticketmaster, the game is already sold out. On ticket re-seller StubHub, prices are at a minimum of $150 for the remaining 600+ tickets as of this writing. That price went up about $30 overnight.

The bad news is that the Rangers won over the Leafs in overtime at the Garden to move into a three-way sixth-place tie with the Islanders and Senators. The slightly good news is that they won in overtime, and that will help when it comes to tiebreakers. At the end of the year, the first tie-breaker is ROW, which goes to the team with the most regulation and overtime wins (shootout wins are not counted).

In other news, the Devils lost to the Bruins 5-4, which now puts the Devils in 10th and four behind the Rangers and Islanders with an equal number of games played. The Devils are in free fall, 2-4-4 in their last ten, and look like they could be out of the playoff picture awfully soon.

While the Islanders are in Boston tonight, there will be a couple other games to scoreboard watch. The Senators are in Philly and Winnipeg hosts Florida. Your rooting interests tonight are as follows:

1 – Islanders
2 – Islanders
3 – Islanders
4 – Islanders
5 – Islanders
6 – Islanders
7 – Islanders
8 – Islanders
9 – Philly
10 – Florida
11 – Hurricanes
12 – Canadiens