Surprising Islanders proving experts wrong so far this season

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The Montreal Canadiens pay a visit Wednesday night to one of the NHL's quiet surprises this season.

The New York Islanders were predicted by many to place dead last in a competitive Atlantic Division that features the rebuilt Philadelphia Flyers, the Cup-contending New York Rangers, Sid The Kid's Pittsburgh Penguins and Marty Brodeur's New Jersey Devils.

"Just because the so-called experts pencil you in to have an unsuccessful season doesn't mean that you can't compete every night and play as hard as you can," Islanders centre Mike Comrie told The Canadian Press on Tuesday.

Seven weeks into the NHL season, the Islanders are very much in the mix in the Atlantic at 11-6-0, sitting third in the division with fewer games played than any of their rivals.

"It's still early in the season," cautioned Isles GM Garth Snow. "We haven't even got to the 20-game mark yet. But the encouraging part of that is that we feel we should have a better record than what we have."

Several players got off the Island in the off-season and that led to some of the dire predictions heading into the season. Leaving town in July were star forwards Ryan Smyth, Jason Blake and Viktor Kozlov and power-play quarterback Tom Poti.

But Snow and his staff were busy replacing them with Comrie, Bill Guerin, Ruslan Fedotenko and Josef Vasicek up front and Andy Sutton and Bryan Berard on the blue-line.

"We got the players that we thought would give us the best opportunity to win," said Snow. "I know some people outside this organization were sceptical and maybe didn't know what was going on, but we had a plan and we stuck to it."

Comrie leads the team in scoring with 17 points (6-11) in 17 games, Vasicek has a team-high eight goals and Guerin has provided great leadership while wearing the captain's C.

"We have a really good group of guys," said Comrie. "We have some really good leaders on this team. Billy Guerin's leadership doesn't go unnoticed in our dressing room."

Of course, there's the guy behind the bench, too. Head coach Ted Nolan is once again an early season candidate for the Jack Adams Award.

"He's been great," said Comrie. "He really lets the players do their thing. The thing that he demands is that everybody works hard. ...

"You look at his track record, he seems to get the most out of the players that he has," added Comrie. "I don't think it's a secret there's a reason why he's considered a players' coach."

Comrie is getting a chance to be a No. 1 centre, something he's craved for a long time. And the 27-year-old Edmonton native is putting up the numbers to back it up.

"I remember playing against him," said Snow. "He was really a creative player that always put numbers on the board when he got an opportunity. We feel very fortunate to have gotten Mike in an Islander jersey.

"Aside from his ability on the ice, he's a great person. I know our fans here have embraced him."

The goaltending of Rick DiPietro is also a major reason for the Isles' success. He's 10-5-0 with a 2.26 goals-against average and .912 save percentage.

"Ricky DiPietro gives us a chance to win every night," said Comrie. "He's a goaltender that never gives up. He's very athletic. You can tell in practice, he doesn't want one puck to get in."

The rival New York Rangers should know. They've lost three times already this season to DiPietro. Comrie says the New York rivalry has been a blast.

"I've been pretty lucky to be involved in few now with Edmonton-Calgary, Ottawa-Toronto and now New York-New York," said Comrie. "They're all unique in their own way.

"But this one, when you look up in the stands and see the fans fighting, you know there's a lot on the line."



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