By Tim Leonard
UNIONDALE, New York — The chant started organically earlier this season, inspired by the simple, unabashed joy of success. Maybe that’s why it caught on so quickly at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, a place where there hasn’t been much to cheer for in the last three decades.
One fan’s joy became that of a handful of fans. One row became one section. Any time the Islanders scored a goal or won a game, more and more fans joined in, giving voice to their jubilation. As the victories mounted and New York rose to be one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference, those sections of the Coliseum that had been vacant for so long began to fill up. And the chant grew louder.
In the late 1970s and early ’80s, the Islanders were a juggernaut, a dynasty that won four consecutive Stanley Cups from ’79 to ’83. But during the 20 years after their last playoff series win, in 1993, they were often one of the worst teams in the NHL, making only six postseason appearances. Now the Coliseum is full again, with people eager for another championship, and for the chance to join in the rallying cry for one of the surprise teams of the season.
“Yes! Yes! Yes!”
It’s simple, but it says it all. Loudly. Jubilantly.
There are similarities between the New York team of today and the one that dominated the NHL more than a generation ago. The Islanders dynasty was led by Hall of Fame center Bryan Trottier, who topped the NHL with 134 points in 1978–79. The heartbeat of the current team is center John Tavares, who leads the league with 72 points. He’s getting plenty of help from four solid lines, all of which are contributing offense. The defense has been buoyed by two preseason trades that landed blueliners Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy, both veterans of Cup-winning teams.
But the most important addition has been goaltender Jaroslav Halak. The Islanders have gone through plenty of goalies since Billy Smith was stopping pucks and winning Cups while whacking anyone who dared come into his crease. None of them have given New York what Halak has this season.
“He’s been great,” says winger Kyle Okposo, who made his Islanders debut in March 2008. “He’s added that stability we haven’t had in a long time. With the exception of [Evgeni Nabakov] there for a little bit, we haven’t had that true No. 1 that can step in and play a lot of games for you and you know what you’re going to get out of him. He’s been huge for us.’’
Halak’s importance to New York isn’t defined by eye-popping numbers. It’s more the consistency and reliability he has given the Islanders between the pipes. It’s something that has mostly been lacking since the club last won a title of any note, the 1983–84 Wales Conference championship. No Islanders goalie has been able to play 50 games—with a goals-against average below 2.50 and a save percentage above .910—since Rick DiPietro did it in 2003–04. Including this season, New York has had 18 different goalies in the last 11 seasons. Halak has stabilized the position.
Halak (who is currently day-to-day with a lower-body injury) has played in 50 of the Islanders’ 72 games. He is 34-15-1, with a 2.46 goals-against average and a .912 save percentage. He has four shutouts this season. And though his 34 wins are only good for a tie for third-best in the NHL, they do break the franchise mark of 32 held jointly by Billy Smith, Chris Osgood and DiPietro.
“The biggest thing is guys have been playing well in front of me—it always helps when they keep the shots lower and the scoring chances lower,’’ Halak says. “Obviously, it’s been a lot of fun so far. It’s not over yet. Anything can happen.’’
It already has. The team’s drastic turnaround this season wasn’t expected. New York finished last season below .500 and did not make the playoffs one year after sneaking into the postseason and losing to the Penguins in a tough six-game first-round series.
The key to the Islanders’ sudden ascension came last May, when general manager Garth Snow acquired Halak from the Capitals in exchange for a fourth round pick in the 2014 NHL Draft. Halak was about to become an unrestricted free agent, but the trade gave New York a two-month window to negotiate with him. Snow didn’t need two months. Three weeks after the trade, he signed the goalie to a four-year, $18 million deal that now looks like a relative bargain.
Joining the Islanders has given Halak stability after an incredibly unstable 2013–14 season. He was traded last February from the Blues to the Sabres in the deal that sent star goalie Ryan Miller to St. Louis. But before Halak even played a game for Buffalo, he was traded to Washington. Despite the upheaval, he had a solid season, going 29-13-7 in 52 games.
It was a busy—and aggressive—off-season for Snow, who further shored up his defense by acquiring Boychuk from the Bruins and Leddy from the Blackhawks. Both players recently signed to long-term extensions with New York. Both defensemen have helped shore up the team’s power play, and Boychuk has given the young Islanders a veteran presence in the locker room.
“Everything happens for some reason,” says Halak. “Before I signed, I knew we had some really young guys, some good guys here.... Picking up Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk before the season, that was a really big thing for our defense and for our team. That helped a lot. Johnny has been really good on the power-play and five-on-five. Same with Nick. It’s been a lot of fun so far, but we have a lot of work to do.’’
Halak is a quiet, unassuming type. He’s happy to have found a home, a place where he knows he will be for the next three seasons, even with the team moving to Brooklyn for the 2015–16 campaign. But beyond the stability, Halak relishes his chance to finally be a true No. 1 goalie.
It always had been Halak’s career goal. He split time with Carey Price in the Canadiens’ net early in his career, putting up the kind of numbers that led some to think he should be the starter. In 2009–10, Halak led eighth-seeded Montreal to the Eastern Conference finals before the Habs fell to the Flyers. Halak and Price were both unrestricted free agents after the season, but it was Halak who was traded to the Blues.
In St. Louis, Halak again put up good numbers, but struggled with his health and conditioning, which led to concerns about his toughness and desire. He wound up in a platoon with Brian Elliott. Later, Halak was briefly the No. 1 for the Capitals, who were clinging to fading playoff hopes late in the season.
But his short time in Washington was marked by an unfortunate incident involving then-coach Adam Oates, who told reporters that Halak asked out of a game against the Blues shortly after the trade.
After the season, the Capitals dealt Halak to New York, giving the Islanders a chance to solidify a position that had been a weakness for far too long. In the last seven seasons, New York has ranked no higher than 21st in goals-against. Obviously, that’s not the kind of defensive performance that gets a team to the playoffs.
“When they got me, they showed a lot of interest in me,” says Halak. “They traded for me. That doesn’t usually happen when a guy is about to be a free agent.... That showed they believe in me. There was interest on my side to be here. It’s a young team and will only get better with age. That’s why I decided to be here.’’
Halak has had plenty of highlights this season, but the pinnacle for him may have come in January, when he was in goal for back-to-back wins over Pittsburgh and the Rangers. The second of those victories was the Islanders’ first shutout of their rivals in Madison Square Garden since 1975. One day later, Halak was named as an injury replacement to the Eastern Conference All-Star team. The only downside to the honor was that he had to cancel a planned vacation to Miami’s South Beach.
“It was a nice win, a nice shutout, but the team deserves credit for it,’’ Halak says. “I’m not going out there trying to break any records. I’m trying to go out there, have fun and help the guys win a game. I’m sure they’re doing the same.’’
New York entered the season with a new mindset. Coach Jack Capuano told his players at the very first practice that they were going to have to earn their ice time. They have responded to their coach’s lunch-pail edict, and the Islanders have become a hard-working, gritty team that tries to control the puck as a way to limit shots from opposing teams.
“The organization and coaching staff challenged us in the offseason and in training camp about how much more they expected of us throughout the season, mentally and physically,” says Tavares. “Some of the things they were preaching and the attitude and things we were trying to accomplish, that’s been a big turnaround for us.... You can see the focus and the attitude of the group is really good. Calm composure, poised, confident, how much we believe in ourselves. The expectation to win. It’s not wanting to win or hoping to win, I think [winning is] expected. That’s been a big difference.’’
The fans have come to expect winning, too. The Islanders rank second in the NHL with 222 goals. That number is a testament to the depth and talent on the roster, much of it young and homegrown.
Much like the franchise’s Stanley Cup-winning teams, New York goes four lines deep. In fact, Canadian broadcaster Don Cherry called the Islanders’ hard-hitting fourth line of Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck the best in the NHL. Nine players have reached double-figures in goals, led by Tavares, with 33. Rookie center Anders Lee is next, with 23 goals, and second-year forward Brock Nelson has scored 18.
The offense has carried the defense, which has occasionally struggled, frequently blowing comfortable leads. In addition to Halak’s injury, Leddy (lower body) has been out for the last week. Not coincidentally, New York has lost four games in a row, its worst skid of the season. The team's offense is suddenly struggling at even strength (the power play has been a problem area all season), leaving little margin for error. Defensive depth and concern about overworking Halak were major reasons why Snow acquired backup goalie Michal Neuvirth from Buffalo at the trade deadline. It is Halak’s consistency, his ability to hold a lead and grind out wins that have gained his teammates’ confidence and his return, as well as Leddy’s, should go a long way toward helping the Islanders right themselves before the postseason begins.
There are hopeful signs. During their skid, the Isles lost twice by only one goal (to the surging Rangers and the nearly as hot Senators) and once by two (to the Canadiens). They outshot their opponents 140-109 in those four games but a combination of mistakes, bad breaks and hot goaltending by the likes of Cam Talbot, Carey Price, Andrew Hammond, and Corey Crawford left them searching for answers.
“We have to work our way out of it,” defenseman Travis Hamonic said after the Isles’ 4–1 loss in Chicago on March 17. “We aren’t the only team that is going to go through a lull in the season. Unfortunately now is our time. The only way to get out of these circumstances is to work harder.”
New York broadcaster Butch Goring, a key member of the Islanders’ great dynasty teams, has had a birds-eye view of the current group. He sees plenty of similarities between today and that glorious yesterday.
“The one thing this team has is depth,” says Goring. “This team doesn’t rely on one line. They get scoring from different sources. They have six solid defensemen who all can play, and the goaltending has been solid.... The biggest thing is balance. This team knows how good it is.
“They’re going from God-awful to being a legitimate contender. There’s no doubt this team can represent the East.... Watching this team is like watching when I played. The fans are into it. It seems like an eternity since the fans have been this energized.’’
If Jaroslav Halak continues to work his magic in the playoffs, that energy will only grow. The Isles and their chanting fans aren’t planning on taking “No” for an answer.
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