Islanders move past Rangers

Johnny Boychuk, Casey Cizikas, Matt Martin

Islanders goalscorer Matt Martin celebrates with teammates Casey Cizikas and Johnny Boychuk during a home win over the Devils. AP Photo by Kathy Willens/Getty Images

In their first year at Barclays Center, the Islanders were overlooked due to the Rangers’ hot start. At one point, they trailed their arch nemesis by 11 points in the standings. While the Manhattan tenants got out to a 16-3-1 start, it took the closer Brooklyn rival a little time to get settled in.

Given the set of circumstances in a new arena with players traveling through Long Island Rail Road and New York City subway lines to Atlantic Avenue, maybe it should’ve been expected. The Islanders also had to deal with adjusting to life in the city that never sleeps.

Starting goalie Jaroslav Halak missed the start of the season. It was the play of backup Thomas Greiss that kept them afloat. Even now, with the team back on track having made an express leap past the Rangers, Greiss and Halak have split time under coach Jack Capuano. Each has won nine games while providing the Isles with consistency. In fact, Greiss recorded his fourth career shutout in a 4-0 home win over the Devils on Sunday. He has a 2.03 goals-against-average and .933 save percentage. Halak checks in with a 2.02 GAA, .926 save percentage plus two shutouts. With both performing, it’s a good partnership.

One of the best developments for the team has been the steady play of Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen. Each are due to become unrestricted free agents next summer. What that means for their future with the club remains to be seen. However, it hasn’t been a distraction yet. Okposo leads the Isles in scoring with 26 points (8-18-26). He was the 3-on-3 overtime hero in a 3-2 road win over the Blue Jackets. A two-on-none set up by Josh Bailey. Nielsen has been just as good ranking second behind Tavares in goals with 12 while adding 10 helpers for 22 points.

Ironically, it’s the Islander captain who hasn’t hit his stride. After missing three games with a mysterious illness, he hasn’t gotten hot. However, on a team that boasts scoring balance he hasn’t needed to. In Sunday’s victory, he ended a four-game scoreless drought by finishing off a Okposo feed for a neat deflection. Tavares entered with just two points in six. That goal could be the one that gets him on track like a express locomotive.

The turning point for the Isles came on a successful three-game Western swing in California. They took two of three defeating the Sharks and Ducks sandwiched around a 2-1 loss at the Kings. Only the Atlantic Division-leading Canadiens put a halt to the turnaround sweeping a home-and-home series between Nov. 20-22.

Since that point, the Isles have recorded a point in 10 straight going 8-0-2. They’re 4-for-4 in regulation and 4-0-2 in overtime/shootouts. That included a hard fought emotional 2-1 shootout win over the Blueshirts in their first meeting at Brooklyn. They followed that up with another win in the skill competition over the Blues. Following a disappointing OT loss to the Senators who came back to beat them, they outscored the Flyers in the skill competition and then posted a 3-2 OT win over the Jackets and blitzed the Devils.

During this stretch, the Isles have gotten right back in the race for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division. With hard times finally hitting Broadway with the Blueshirts slumping to just two wins over the last 10 (2-6-2), the Islanders have quietly moved into second in the division. Boasting a 18-8-5 mark which is good for 41 points, they’re a point up on their bitter rival for third and trail the first place Capitals by three. The Caps continued to roll spoiling Mike Sullivan’s coaching debut in a 4-1 road win at the Penguins. Washington is 21-6-2 with 44 points having played two fewer games than either New York clubs.

While the Caps continue to be awfully tough to beat in regulation, the Isles have nothing to be ashamed of. They’ve righted the ship improving their playoff positioning in a competitive division that’s seen a coaching change in Pittsburgh and rookie coach John Hynes lead the Devils to a surprising 34 points which is fourth best in the Metro.

The Isles have done it despite getting very little from Ryan Strome. The third-year forward has experienced some growing pains even going down to Bridgeport. After coming back up, he had five points in five games before being held off the score sheet in three straight. He missed Sunday’s game with an “upper body” injury. Figure the club to hold him out when they host the Panthers later tonight.

They’ve also overcome a potential headache. A couple of weeks ago, TSN reported that defenseman Travis Hamonic would like to be traded close to home due to a family issue. The 25-year old shutdown blueliner has continued to perform well despite the request which actually came before the season. The Isles have been unable so far to accommodate him due to Team President and GM Garth Snow seeking equal value for such a key player. Whether it be Winnipeg which is where Hamonic is from or defense-starved Edmonton or Vancouver, eventually he could move. The Isles deserve a lot of credit for how they’ve handled the issue. Both the organization and player have continued to press on as if nothing is happening.

Another subplot to their season has been the surprising play of Czech veteran defenseman Marek Zidlicky. Signed during camp for insurance, the prideful 38-year old who once was traded by the Rangers to Nashville in a package for Mike Dunham has opened some eyes. As he did against his former team Sunday night, Zidlicky can still fire the puck from the point- beating former Devil teammates Cory Schneider and Keith Kinkaid during the second period. The offensive D is second behind Johnny Boychuk among Isles blueliners in points with 10 (3-7-10). Not too shabby for an elder statesman.

Calvin de Haan, Lee Stempniak

The play of Calvin de Haan has solidified the Isles on the blueline. AP Photo by Kathy Willens/Getty Images

The Isles haven’t gotten as much out of Nick Leddy (9 assists). Boychuk also has a dozen points (3-9-12) but continues to be a team leader on the back end. It’s been the development of Calvin de Haan that’s solidified them. A strong skater whose main responsibility is to limit top scorers, de Haan has excelled. He leads the Isles with 78 blocked shots while showing some offensive potential with a goal and four helpers- all coming at even strength.  A strong skater, he should continue to evolve.

After waiting till the deadline to re-up, Brock Nelson quietly ranks fourth in scoring with nine goals and eight assists. The 24-year old pivot still has ups and downs but has points in two of his last three. Anders Lee has struggled to finish in his sophomore year. After getting 25 in ’14-15, he’s stuck at four. With no goals over the last 10, the Isles need him to get untracked.

While the young guns deal with slumps, Capuano knows he can send out arguably the best fourth line. The grind line of Casey Cizikas, Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck continue to deliver bumps and bruises. Cizikas is the perfect compliment to bruisers Martin and Clutterbuck who have combined for a whopping 290 hits. When they’re not thumping opponents, they’ve contributed offensively. The trio has combined for 13 goals with Clutterbuck leading the way with six.

Capuano can also mix in ex-Devil Steve Bernier with third liners Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolay Kulemin. Top to bottom, the Isles are a complete team that just might finally break through next Spring.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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