by Bloomberg 1130's Chris King
As the Islanders prep for a huge game here in Atlanta, there are several emerging themes as to why the team is playing its most inspired brand of hockey of the entire season. For me, it's the kids, The Rick, the coach and the schedule, so here's a quick look at each.
Just call them the New Youth Islanders. The current Isles roster features seven players 22-years old or younger. Jeremy Colliton is the baby of the group at 20. Bruno Gervais, Robert Nilsson, Chris Campoli and Jeff Tambellini are just 21-years old. Sean Bergenheim and Denis Grebeshkov are 22-years young. And if 20-year old Petteri Nokelainen can battle back from his knee injury before season's end, that would add another player to the kiddie corps. Six of these eight players were drafted by the Isles, with Tambellini and Grebeshkov coming over from L.A. at the trade deadline. And let's not forget that Rick DiPietro is all of 24-years old, while Trent Hunter and John Erskine are 25. That makes half of the Islanders current roster a quarter-century old or younger. With the post-Olympic compressed schedule to close out the season, youth should really serve the Isles well as they continue their push towards the playoffs. The Islanders played just four sets of back-to-back games in the first five months of the season, but they have seven sets of back-to-back contests in the final month and a half.
The biggest reason for the Isles recent turnaround has been the stellar play of goaltender Rick DiPietro. Going into Thursday's game in Atlanta, Rick has won his last seven straight starts, allowing a total of just nine goals against in that span. In his last four starts, he has allowed exactly one goal against per game. Of the four goals total surrendered in those games, three were scored on the power play, with the only even-strength tally against him being Paul Martin's fluky bounce off a dump-in Tuesday night in New Jersey. The NHL's defensive player of the week has yet to record a shutout this season, but he has held the opposition to just one goal eight times this year, and has permitted only two goals against in a dozen other starts. That's a total of 20 games with two or less goals allowed, really giving his team a great chance to win every night. And it's really just a matter of time before that first blanking occurs.
Very little has been written or said about what a remarkable job head coach Brad Shaw has done in turning around the fortunes of this hockey team. He inherited a team that was 18-22-2 under Steve Stirling, and has them at 13-7-2 through his first 22 games behind the bench. They are riding a season-best four-game winning streak, and have won six of their last seven. He has them playing a more focused, disciplined brand of hockey. He has been able to get everyone involved, rolling out four lines a night on a regular basis. Despite a tremendous roster turnover due to injuries and trades, the Isles are playing their most consistent hockey of the season when it matters most. Brad knows when to crack the whip and he knows when to pull back on the reigns, and he is pushing all the right buttons. His youthful demeanor and temperament are a perfect fit for this hockey club right now.
In the Islanders final 18 games of the regular season, they really have a favorable schedule to work with. With Montreal and Atlanta directly above them in the Eastern conference standings, the Isles have a pair of games remaining against each of those teams, with one at the Coliseum and one on the road. Each of those contests becomes a "four-point" game in essence, and New York also has one more meeting with the Tampa Bay Lightning, currently hanging onto the seventh spot by a thread. There are also two games remaining against the Maple Leafs, who just won't go away quietly, and one with the Panthers, still trying to catch the pack as well. But the real wild card in all of this is the Penguins. The Islanders still have four games remaining against the team with the worst record in the NHL, although they have been playing much better of late. The Isles have won three of four games from Pittsburgh already, and really need to take at least six or seven points out of those final four contests. And how about the three games left against the suddenly slumping Rangers? After dropping the first two meetings with their New York rivals, the Blueshirts have taken the last three straight games from the Islanders, and these remaining head-to-head battles will be huge for each side. Why do I get the feeling this might all come down to Tuesday night, April 18th at Nassau Coliseum, with the Islanders hosting the Flyers in the regular season finale? It's going to be a wild ride from here to the finish high-stakes hockey at its best.