THERE IS JOY IN ISLANDERS COUNTRYFinally, THIS rebuild is starting to feel different

by Kevin Schultz

5:00 pm: After what we’ve seen over the last two weeks, it sure looks like this incarnation of the Islanders has finally jelled. It may have taken four months (or a year and four months depending on how you’re looking at it), a coaching change, more than a half-dozen goalies and an endless losing skid, but it sure looks like they’re putting it all together.

Passes are tape-to-tape. The players seem to instinctively know where their linemates are and Ferocious Friday’s display of sticking up for each other has continued. The effort level and play during this six-out-of-seven streak looks like it could be the real deal that we’ll come to expect somewhere down the line. This quite possibly is what Garth Snow was visualizing when he was talking playoffs for this season.

If it seems belittling to be praising bonafide NHL players for making passes, that’s not my point. We’ve sat through the rebuilds before and we’ve witnessed seemingly random mid-February hot streaks before. This doesn’t feel the same. Saturday against the Kings and today against the Panthers it didn’t look the same.

Matt Moulson is a scoring machine. Even though he was kept off the scoresheet today – mainly thanks to Tomas Vokoun – Michael Grabner had plenty of flashy close calls. John Tavares is setting up his teammates left and right. There’s so much more about the last few games that I can’t fit it all into this space.

The point is that this doesn’t look like those old rebuilds – Eric Fichaud looking like Glenn Healy for a week or Oleg Kvasha inexplicably catching fire. This is the Islanders coming out strong against a team they should beat in the Panthers and PA Parenteau wheeling around in the corner, firing a strike to Moulson in the center of the faceoff circle that he absolutely buries. And that was the second of the game and first period for Moulson, leading to an eventual hat trick and his ninth goal of the month.

This is quite different. This isn’t random and inexplicable. This has been building. The tension was building and the result was the one-night evisceration of the Penguins. But the feelings have continued, even if the wild west saloon act was one-night-only. Their cohesion and chemistry as a team have been building, too. Today, they out-shot the Panthers 16-3 in the first period and took a 2-0 lead into the first intermission. They never let off the pedal through the final 40. They were ready to play and didn’t let down for a second. Today’s final was 5-1 on the scoreboard and 37-21 in shots but a few posts go the other way, Vokoun doesn’t stone Grabner cold on a breakaway and it could have been six, seven or more.

Maybe the Kings and Panthers looked like two teams that weren’t excited about their free trip to Long Island in mid-February. Let’s not overstate it. For the Islanders to not come out flat…to not play only a good 20 or 40 minutes, but to play a complete 60 minutes of hockey for much of the last five games since Feb. 11 (excluding Thursday against Boston) is a great sign that things are changing and this time should be different. Now, the challenge is to finish the season strong and carry the momentum as far as possible.

Notes: After a few days away on a non-hockey assignment, Chris Botta returns Tuesday to Point Blank to write off the game in Toronto and the SNY studio to record a new batch of interviews and “Islanders Interactive” segments. He told me he is keeping a long promise to one of his sons to take him to the Coliseum when Ovechkin and the Capitals play the Islanders on Saturday. Only 11 points out of eighth place, if the Islanders play well this week, they could have meaningful games in March. After all that has happened this season, wouldn’t that be something?

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