So, here the Islanders sit, 17 games into the season at 6-6-5, which, believe it or not, currently puts them as the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference with their 17 points.
In recent seasons the team has also managed to get through the first month or so in relatively good shape, offering up what turned out to be a false sense that the ship may finally be headed in the right direction.
What has usually happened in the past however, is long stretches through the holidays—streaks like 2-12-3—that have traditionally taken the club into the new year well out of playoff contention and entertaining talk of veteran player fire sales and high draft position.
The season-ending injury Friday night to defenseman Radek Martinek (torn ACL), which has become an annual occurrence the last few years, along with the upper-body injury to veteran center Doug Weight the same night, could not be more badly timed.
As the team gets set for what could be a season defining seven-game road trip, and with 12 of their next 14 games away from home, the win Saturday night at the Coliseum against Atlanta was huge. They won’t taste home cooking again till the night before Thanksgiving, Nov. 25 against the Flyers.
“After a couple of losses and going on the road and we have a couple of teams that are playing well, it’s big for us,” said rookie John Tavares, who enjoyed the first two-assist game of his young career. “We needed this. We’ll have our confidence up the next couple of days, get our rest and get ready for some tough games to come.”
In taking a closer look at the road trip, the potential exists for the team to fair quite well. They only play one team with a record over .500 (Washington at 10-3-4) and outside of the Bruins (7-7-2), the other five teams they visit own the bottom five win/loss records in the league (Carolina, Florida, Minnesota, St. Louis and Toronto). There are points on the table during this stretch for sure and the opportunity to build on what has been a feel good start thus far is certainly there for the taking.
“If we can get the kind of balance scoring we got tonight we can be a lot harder to play against (on this trip),” said Isles’ coach Scot Gordon after the win over the Thrashers. In an effort to get more balance, the second year coach juggled his lines a bit against Atlanta, moving arguably his best forward, Kyle Okposo, off the top line with Tavares and early season revelation Matt Moulson. Gordon rewarded Richard Park’s hard work by giving him that spot while Okposo skated with Sean Bergenheim and Franz Nielsen. That line looked solid as well. Blake Comeau shook off the cobwebs after sitting the last six games and also looked good, contributing a goal and an assist, and Bergenheim simply had his best game of the season with a goal as well.
Spreading the wealth like this will be key as they are not likely to match the season high 45 shots on goal that the Thrashers stood around and watched them take Saturday. They’ll undoubtedly play it a bit more cautious away from the friendly, if a bit antiquated, confines of the old barn on Hempstead Turnpike and the team will need offensive contributions from all the forward lines.
On defense, Andy Sutton stepped up and had another solid game and is off to his best start in years. Freddy Meyer, replacing Martinek, played well but sparingly (13:21) and figures to get more ice time on the trip. For now the extra minutes that belonged to Martinek appeared to go to Mark Streit, Bruno Gervais and Jack Hillen.
Replacing Martinek won’t happen via a trade or call-up as Gordon stated, “Freddy (Meyer) is here and was going to get some playing time anyway. Now he gets his chance.”
Martinek’s puck-moving ability will be missed but that is also a big part of Meyer’s game. Now in his eighth season, Martinek has played as many as 70 games only once in his career. He managed to squeeze in 16 this season. The 28 year-old Meyer has never played more than 57 games in a season but it looks like he’ll get a good chance to best that total now.
After winning their last four games at the Coliseum the Isles will need to find that winning formula on the road where they have won just once so far this season (in Washington). They’ll have several opportunities over the next two-and-a-half weeks to do just that—a stretch that may be looked back upon as the turning point, one way or the other, of the 2009-2010 season.
The popular rumor circulating around the Islanders these days is that Rick DiPietro may be close as 2-3 weeks away from returning. The date being tossed around most frequently is Dec. 1. That will create a crowd in the crease and means one of three goalies will be shopped. Martin Biron becomes the most likely to go as his one-year, $1.4 million salary is extremely cap-friendly. While a third round pick is probably the most likely return, there are several clubs out there that are fairly desperate for goaltending right now (Toronto, Ottawa, Carolina, Edmonton) so perhaps a more immediate need can be addressed. Stay tuned.
The Isles are playing much tighter third periods since the opening weeks of the season when they were frequently coughing up late leads. The club has looked very poised in protecting third period leads in wins over the Rangers (10/28), Buffalo (10/31), Edmonton (11/2) and Atlanta (11/7) in recent weeks.
They may get a break beginning this key trip in D.C. as it looks like Alex Ovechkin’s upper-body injury might take longer to heal than the Caps originally had hoped. Rumor out of Washington has it that Ovie might be out till Thanksgiving. Whew.
How about Brendan’s Witt’s neat hat trick effort against Edmonton last Monday. The veteran defenseman had a pair of second period tallies and had a couple of chances to bury a third, most notably a chance late in the game at an empty net after the Oilers pulled their goalie. Was Witt thinking trick? “No, don’t care about that stuff at all,” he said after the game, though when pressed he added, “It would’ve been nice, but whatever.”