3rd in the Atlantic Division
3 points behind 1st place Philadelphia
7th in the Conference
Should the New York Islanders be happy with this start to the season? Absolutely
! Factor in the reality that no team in the entire National Hockey League has played fewer games than the Isles (21) at this point and you'd have to consider them thrilled
with their performance thus far!
But tonight's tilt with the mighty Ottawa Senators is nothing short of a major test for the Isles. In many ways, the Islanders almost have
to win this game to begin to cement themselves as a true threat in the Eastern Conference. The mainstream media has given them their fair share of positive attention in the earlygoing due to what was perceived by many to be a surprisingly positive start. (ESPN ranks the Isles 8th in their most recent Power Rankings, though TSN has them at just 19th in their most recent poll. Hockeybuzz.com - a little web site you may have heard of
- has the Isles at 14.) To be considered the real deal, however, to take the next step in maturing as a club and becoming a true contender in the East, the Islanders have to make a statement against the upper echelon teams.
Enter Ottawa ...
The Sens have been mortal lately (5-4-1 in their last ten) but have run roughshod on their opponents for much of the early season and have dominated the Islanders historically. Even before Ottawa established themselves as a perennial power in the East, they've simply owned the Isles. Their all-time record of 34-10-11 in the series (and 17-5-6 in Uniondale) is intimidating, to say the least.
Ottawa's offensive firepower is simply undeniable. Couple that with the offensive struggles for the Isles as of late and a predicted blowout would be, at least, understandable.
But the feel of this Islander team doesn't really allow for that and it's beyond time for them to slay the beast that the Senators have become.
There's something about this bunch that says they're willing to fight it out to the end and, for the most part this year, they've shown that night in, night out. Recent goal scoring woes (18 goals in their last 10 games) and where the production has been coming from (Richard Park and Andy Hilbert have notched goals lately, while Bill Guerin and Trent Hunter have not) is certainly cause for concern but can only last so long. (Right
?) The defensemen have added little in the way of point production recently and their inclusion on the offensive side of things is vital to a group like the Islanders that truly relies on a total team effort to be effective. The power play has struggled lately as well, seeing their position in the league rankings slip from among the leaders to 15th as of today.
Still, despite 1.8 goals per game in the last 10, the team has managed a 5-4-1 record during that span. Why? Rick DiPietro has simply been outstanding
. Tied for 3rd in the NHL with 11 wins, DiPietro continues to come into his own as a professional and, so far, his lengthy contract (that everyone still
loves to harp on so much) appears to be a bargain. But he just can't be expected to hold the fort in 1-goal games forever. There has to be more support.
I looked at these last two weeks on the schedule, with 4 games to be played in each, as a great opportunity for the Islanders to climb in the standings after being hamstrung by the light schedule early on. Last week, they only picked up 4 of the possible 8 points. This week, they're 1 out of 2 after an overtime loss to Dallas on Monday. Stealing tonight's 2 points by conquering a mountain of an Ottawa club would be a huge step for a team that is trying to define itself as a real threat.
The schedule won't be a viable excuse for much longer. At some point, it will no longer matter who the opponent is either. Conquering Ottawa would send the Isles a long way toward telling the league that they will be a force to be reckoned with all year long.
And, after years of humiliating defeats at their hands, it would finally make the Senators just another opponent.
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