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Don't sleep on these Isles

It couldn't happen again, could it?

Last year, the New York Islanders made the playoffs thanks to a late-season push capped by an improbable final week, securing the eighth Eastern Conference invite in overtime of the 82nd game of the regular season. All this with backup Wade Dubielewicz supplying the heroics between the pipes in place of injured All-Star goaltender Rick DiPietro.

Well, when the week began, the Isles had lost seven straight overall and seven straight at home. DiPietro was winless in eight consecutive starts -- a personal worst -- and the team's offensive output was the lowest in the entire NHL. With the trade deadline looming, a couple more losses would have had GM Garth Snow's cell phone ringing incessantly with inquiries regarding the six unrestricted free agents dotting the current roster.

The Islanders instead went 3-0 during the week with wins over the Atlantic Division foe Flyers, the Maple Leafs on the road and the Thrashers back at home. DiPietro tended goal in all three wins and the offense exploded, unleashing 96 shots on goal during the two home fixtures and scoring 13 goals in the three victories. (They had mustered just eleven goals during their 0-6-1 slide.)

Ultimately, Snow may become a seller when the GM's meetings take place this week in Florida. But how can he act with any certainty? The Islanders are just three points out of the final postseason berth with 23 games remaining. Anything can happen as Snow witnessed it firsthand last season, when the Isles won their last four games over the final five days -- including a shootout triumph at New Jersey on Apr. 8 -- to stunningly crash the playoff party. That rip followed a 2-6-2 stretch which put the Islanders in such a precarious situation to begin with.

This year, New York coach Ted Nolan said it has been a matter of health.

"We play a hard, grinding style. Injuries happen. But with us, we lost our energy. After coming back from our western swing in January, our depth had a hard time replacing our need for speed." Now, despite having Mike Sillinger out up front and three mainstays on the blueline sidelined as well, Nolan sees the necessary jump and jam back. "In our system we have to make sure we're up. We talked about the difference in kinda sorta being in position and making sure we work to move up in the neutral zone and on the forecheck. The last five games we've been much better in transition because of that early effort."

Whatever it is, it's back to not counting Nolan and his Islanders out. They're getting outstanding recent production from the line of Trent Hunter, Josef Vasicek and Ruslan Fedotenko. Veterans Marc Andre Bergeron and Bryan Berard have stepped into the lineup on the blueline and filled in for injuries and ignited a previously dormant powerplay. And they have their goaltender poised ready to go on one of his patented runs where he is at the top of his game.

I'm not sure if the Islanders can find the magic again this time around, but I do know one thing: this is a group defined by what they are rather than what they lack. And with that kind of outlook and belief, anything is possible.

A LOOK AHEAD

The Islanders play an afternoon non-conference game on Presidents Day against the San Jose Sharks. The weekend tilt has the Isles at New Jersey on Saturday with games against Southeast squads in between -- at Washington on Wednesday and back on the Island to face the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday.

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