Johnny Boychuk (Photo by Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty Images)
The franchise brought in a handful of Stanley Cup winners this season to bolster what has been a growing roster over the years. Now in the NHL's top echelon, the Islanders will have to face the pressure of being top dogs.
It was the trap game of all trap games. Toronto on a Monday night, with the blood rival Rangers waiting to play them at Nassau Coliseum on Tuesday. And for most of the tilt against the Maple Leafs, the Islanders looked like a team that assumed two points would be handed to them by the lowly opposition.
That of course did not happen and it took a deft Casey Cizikas deflection and a highlight-reel goal from captain John Tavares in overtime to shift the universe back into proper alignment. But the Islanders can pull the positives out of the great escape.
“We came back from a two-goal (deficit)," said trade deadline acquisition Tyler Kennedy. "It shows that guys have a lot of confidence in each other and it’s great to see.”
Defenseman Johnny Boychuk insists his boys didn't look past the Leafs, but it did take some time to wrap their heads around what they were dealing with.
“We knew we weren’t playing our best," he said. "But when we did in the third, good things happened and we kept rolling with it.”
Boychuk and Kennedy are going to be key players for New York down the stretch. Not just because of what they can do on the ice, but for the experiences they bring from the teams they played for in the past.
The Islanders' great young core, which includes Tavares, Travis Hamonic, Ryan Strome, and Kyle Okposo (about to return from an eye injury) among others, has not had any post-season success at the NHL level: The best the Isles could do was a plucky first-round exit against the favored Pittsburgh Penguins in 2013.
Boychuk won a Stanley Cup in Boston, while Kennedy won with the Pens. Nick Leddy, acquired the same summer day as Boychuk, has a ring from his Chicago days. These are the players that teammates can look to if all goes well and the Islanders find themselves neck-deep in the playoffs. These are the guys who have been there before.
Because this squad has the elements to make a run. The Islanders are one of the best possession teams in the NHL and tops in the Metropolitan Division. They have depth at every position and a legit superstar down the middle in Tavares. Now they need to execute and while pressure to win a division title is new to this group, it's clearly not overwhelming.
“I don’t think we’re worried about it too much," Kennedy said. "We’re just thinking about playing consistent hockey heading into the playoffs – that’s the biggest thing right now, making sure we’re playing our game.”
The Stanley Cup picture is wide-open this year. Los Angeles might actually miss the playoffs and Chicago won't have Patrick Kane until perhaps the third round, assuming the Hawks make it that far. So your traditional faves are in rocky waters. The East is always a bull run, so why not the Isles? The franchise that won four straight titles in Nassau Coliseum could totally play for one more in the last year of the building's existence.
But they could also go down in the first round.
GM Garth Snow has made some savvy moves this year and the next month or two will reveal the result of his alchemy. Another long summer on Long Island, or no sleep til Brooklyn?