By Daniel Friedman
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What can you learn about a hockey team after three games?
Some might tell you there’s nothing to be gleaned from that small of a sample size, and in many cases they’d be right. As for the New York Islanders, there’s more to it than just three games.
It’s about taking into account the acquisitions that GM Garth Snow has made to improve the team. It’s about a collective belief in the locker room that the Isles are capable of better results than they’ve shown.
In addition to those factors, it’s about three games. It’s one thing to say you want to win, but when you start out the way the Islanders have, you’re sending a message.
Whether or not they’ll keep this up remains to be seen, but there’s certainly a lot to like about how they’ve played out of the gate. We talk about it all the time – the importance of setting the tone early. The Islanders have done that here.
They picked up back-to-back wins against a Carolina Hurricanes team they were expected to beat, which is something they’ve had trouble doing the past few years.
Still, John Tavares put everything back in perspective. After a 4-3 home-opener win at Nassau Coliseum, he wasn’t about to be complacent.
“We can’t fall in love with ourselves,” said Tavares.
That’s precisely the attitude you want your captain to have. Now in his sixth year in the league, Tavares is a wiser, more experienced leader. He also happens to be one of the best players in the NHL, and he’s picked up right where he left off before his season-ending injury at the Sochi Olympics.
His teammates have grown up, too. Head coach Jack Capuano made mention of that after the Islanders’ 6-3 victory over the Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night.
“We have a more mature group,” said Capuano. “What I like about the team, I said this in training camp: It’s about accountability, and it starts with them. The great teams have that in the locker room. It starts with them. It starts with the individual, then it’s their teammates, then it’s the coaching staff. So I like the fact that when we’re not playing how we need to play, guys are stepping up. It’s tough to give your teammate a little kick in the butt there, and I’m seeing more and more of that.”
The win at MSG was eye-opening, not just because of how the Isles surged ahead with four third-period goals but because they did it despite not being at their best.
Jaroslav Halak passed his first big test, making 40 saves (30 after the first two periods) and helping the Islanders weather a storm that they simply would not have last season.
“The second period of his was big,” Capuano said. “That’s what he’s paid to do. Give Halak credit, because he kept us in it and gave us a chance in the third to win the hockey game.”
Kyle Okposo had this to say about Halak’s performance and his team’s: “I think it’s a sign of a good team that we were still in the game. It really helps having (Halak) back there. He kept us in the game and allowed us to get our legs going. Once we did, we took the game over.”
You could see throughout the game just how much of a difference Halak made. There were a number of saves he made that Evgeni Nabokov simply couldn’t have made. Had the Rangers scored a few times in that second period, the entire complexion of the game would’ve changed.
But the Islanders forged ahead and, after an abysmal second period, bounced back with a vengeance.
“Resiliency is the word I’d use,” said Travis Hamonic. “We weren’t good enough for our standard the first (two) periods. The third was a great period.”
Even more telling than the win itself was how the Isles reacted afterwards. The overall sense in the locker room was that, even though they won, they didn’t play at the level they expect themselves to. Tavares mentioned it, as did Capuano.
“I’m pleased that they responded, but we just have to make sure that the consistency in our game and how we need to play becomes the focus,” he said.
When asked about his team’s 3-0 start, he immediately downplayed it.
“Period by period, shift by shift,” said Capuano. “I don’t look ahead. I’m looking at tomorrow’s practice.”
That Capuano is making these kinds of statements is not to be overlooked.
I think this is something we’ve been waiting to see (and hear) from him for quite a while. It’s something I felt Capuano didn’t do enough of last season. He’d often say the defense played well when that clearly wasn’t the case, whereas on Tuesday night he criticized the team for its defensive play – after a win. That’s a big deal.
Is it because he’s on the hot seat? Is it because he’s matured as an NHL coach? It’s probably a bit of both. Either way, it’ll only help.
Need more proof that Capuano’s starting to hold his players accountable? Consider what he said about Ryan Strome after his two-assist night at MSG.
“He was average tonight,” Capuano said. “He was average. On one shift he had three turnovers. He’s a skilled guy, he’s a young guy; it’s about knowing who you’re out there against, it’s about habits, attention to detail, puck management. What I like about our team, some of the veteran guys let him know.”
If that’s not accountability, I don’t know what is. All I do know is that the Isles are 3-0, and Capuano isn’t satisfied with their play through those three games. If that’s the mindset from the get-go, it’s a very good sign.
That’s where three games can tell you a whole lot about a team, and what we’ve been told is that the Islanders may very well be onto something here.
• The offense has been terrific, scoring 15 goals over the first three games. Defensively, you don’t want to be giving up three goals a night, which is what the Isles have done. A big reason for that has been their horrendous execution level on the penalty kill. That’s an area where this team needs to improve immediately, if not sooner. It won’t be an easy task with Michael Grabner out of the lineup.
• The penalty kill might be struggling, but the power play has been fantastic. The Isles are currently ranked second in power-play percentage, trailing the Pittsburgh Penguins by a tad.
• Tavares and Brock Nelson are both tied for the league lead in points with seven. Six Islanders are currently producing at a point-per-game pace or better (Tavares, Nelson, Johnny Boychuk, Okposo, Strome, Mikhail Grabovski). Boychuk, Nick Leddy, Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin and Cory Conacher have 13 points combined.
• Griffin Reinhart’s had a bit of trouble at the NHL level thus far, but I think it’s too soon to determine that he shouldn’t be here. I’d try pairing him with Hamonic and see if that helps first. That would give Reinhart a more experienced, more capable mentor who can make up for the kid’s rookie mistakes
Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter @DFriedmanOnNYI.
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