Thursday January 15th, 2015

The last time the New York Islanders were any good, UB40 was a viable concert act and Beanie Babies were something your kids actually wanted. So yeah, it's been awhile.

And so it's kind of shocking to see these long-time patsies enter the weekend among the beasts of the East, sitting one point out of the conference lead with a 29-13-1 record and holding three games in hand on first-place Tampa Bay.

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"We're having a lot of fun," said captain John Tavares. "We just want to keep winning."

The question is, will they? Can these Isles possibly be for real?

We're not talking about sneaking into the playoffs here. We're talking about walking up to your table and asking if they can dance with your dates real.

Amazingly, the signs point to yes.

There's still a lot of hockey left, but here are six reasons to believe in these Islanders:

1. We haven't seen the best yet from John Tavares.

It's not that J.T.'s been bad. In fact, he got off to a terrific start, scoring nine points in his first four games, but then went into funk where he eked out just 18 points in 29 games. Decent numbers for most forwards, but this is a player who is only two years removed from being a Hart Trophy finalist.

The success of the team masked his early struggles, if not his frustration. But now there's reason to believe that he's finding the zone as the season enters the second half.

Take last Friday's 3-2 road win over the Devils. With his team trailing 2-1 and less than seven minutes remaining, Tavares tied it up by banking a shot off of the back of goaltender Keith Kinkaid. Then in overtime he created a turnover behind the New Jersey net, darted out front and buried a wrister to seal the win.

It was classic, take-charge Tavares, and it marked his third multiple-point effort in his past six games. With plenty of gas in the tank, he could dominate the second half.

2. Jaroslav Halak changes everything.

Most of us thought that GM Garth Snow was clutching at straws when he dealt for and then signed free-agent-to-be Halak, a player widely viewed as solid but not exactly someone you wanted to be with in a foxhole. He won't shake that rep until he proves himself in the postseason, but give credit where it's due. No player has meant more to the turnaround on Long Island than the steady Halak. The All-Star has earned a 23-8 record, set a franchise record for consecutive wins (11), and posted a .917 save percentage with a 2.22 goals-against average.

Compare that to last season when the team averaged 3.18 goals-against per game. Improvements on the blueline can't be ignored, but much of the difference can be chalked up to getting that first stop from Halak. The Isles say the confidence he gives them changes the way they play.

“It makes a big difference when we can make mistakes in front of him and not have it be a total lapse,” said forward Anders Lee. “He’s been there for us, and we’re there for him.”

“We feel like he gives us a chance to win every night,” said defenseman Travis Hamonic. “He's been giving us big stops all year.”

If Halak can stay healthy, he can be their Antti Niemi circa 2010.

3. They are deep.

For all the attention that is paid to Tavares and Halak, it's the improved depth -- and the improved play of the depth players -- that gives this team an edge heading into the second half. The impact of Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy can't be overstated. The pair brought determination, speed and Stanley Cup-winning experience to solidify a blueline that skewed young. Add in veteran puck mover Lubomir Visnovsky, who should be back soon from IR, and this group has a nice blend of toughness and skill that matches up well with any team in the Eastern Conference.

The Isles look even better up front. Frans Nielsen may never get the credit he deserves, but he's quietly emerged as one of the league's best two-way forwards. Ryan Strome, too timid during much of last season, has turned into a puck pursuit beast, using his size to win battles and create opportunities. Brock Nelson has developed into a legitimate top-six forward and a physical force on the power play. Mikhail Grabovski has added speed and grit. And hey, if they can ever get Kyle Okposo on track, this third-ranked offense could get really dangerous

"They come at you different ways," a scout told "They can play fast, they can play physical, they beat you with skill. It's the mark of a good team."

4. They are possession monsters.

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You can turn up your nose at advanced stats and their acolytes, but there's no denying one basic truth: The more you control the puck, the more likely you are to win. The Isles are possession monsters, leading the league through the first half of the season in two of the most telling metrics: Fenwick, a measurement of shots on net plus missed shots (55%) and Fenwick-close, the same measurement but limited to situations where the score is within a goal (55.5%).

What does that tell us? It means the Isles are doing a better job of creating opportunities to score than any other team. It says they give themselves a better chance to create the bounces a team needs to win games on a consistent basis. It says they consistently limit the chances of the other team better than anyone else.

And that's worth noting because two of the past four Cup winners -- Chicago in 2010 and Los Angeles in 2014 -- have finished first in the Fenwick Close category.

5. They've been good, not lucky.

The Isles are where they are because they've found a way to consistently grab two points from those close games. Take a look at the results: a league-leading 6-1 in the shootout and an exceptional 18-3-1 mark in one-goal games. The question is can they possibly count on similar results in the second half?

The answer: no. They'll probably do even better.

No doubt the Isles have gotten a few bounces along the way, but they haven't relied on luck to roll up those victories ... at least, not if you believe in PDO. That's a fancystat that attempts to measure the impact of luck by combining a team's save percentage and their shooting percentage with the idea being that a sum around 100 is the mean. Through the first half, the Isles clock in at 99.3, ranking them 22nd in the league and well off the pace of other Eastern contenders like Montreal (101.95), Pittsburgh (101.93) and the Rangers (101.42).

With room to improve in both shooting and save percentage, it's fair to assume that the Isles could be even more dangerous in close games down the stretch.

6. They play the game the right way.

It's a testament to coach Jack Capuano that his system gets much of the credit for the team's success.

“They're a tough team to play against. They play the right way,” Rangers forward Rick Nash said in the wake of his team's 3-0 loss to the Isles on Tuesday. “They lock you in your own zone and they kind of drain all the momentum from your game.”

“They're big and they're strong and they're fast and they're deep, but what really sticks out is their discipline,” an Eastern Conference scout told “They're hard on the puck, there's a lot of support. They've got good gaps. They believe in what they're doing and they stick to it.”

“Mostly, it's maturity,” said a second scout. “They've learned by making mistakes. They've figured it out. And [Capuano] has their attention now. They believe in what he's asking them to do when they don't have the puck. They've bought in.”

“They're a hungry group,” offered a third. “They play like they've got something to prove. They've been knocked around before...and now it's all coming together for them. They're looking to kick sand in people's faces.”

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