Finding themselves at the top of the Eastern Conference after the first few games of the season, the Islanders depended on the excitement from their initial success to carry them through the next few games. And while the young team wanted to tally the two points with wins, that wasn’t always the outcome.
“Usually when a team struggles, they were struggling before they started to struggle,” said head coach Scott Gordon. “It might not have showed up in the win-loss column, but to me (our play) started to deteriorate after the Washington game. We didn’t come close to playing the last four games with the same kind of oomph that we had in the first three.”
Hoping to get his team back to their top form before heading to Montreal for the first game of a home-and-home series, coach Gordon expected a few solid days of practice at Iceworks would be good for his young squad, noting “there are just some drills you can’t do in a pregame skate.”
Forward Matt Moulson agreed when he said, “On the road, playing so many games, it’s tough to get real good practices in. So a lot of our stuff is done through video and that helps a lot, but it’s still hard when you’re not going through the motions on the ice.”
Gordon also wanted to make sure he kicked some bad habits before heading back to the road.
“It was good,” Gordon said about Tuesday’s practice. “I thought there was great energy. It gave us the opportunity to work on a couple of things that we haven’t had the opportunity to work on. Right now we are playing against Montreal (Wednesday and Friday) and they’ve been playing some pretty good hockey.”
“We have to make sure that we are doing all the right things,” Gordon continued. “(The Bell Centre) is a tough building to play in. It would be great for us to go up and play a game after we’ve had a little bit of a break. It seems like we have been going non-stop.”
Defenseman James Wisniewski agreed that having a few good practices would make all the difference when heading to play Montreal, a team that the Islanders went 1-2-1 with last season. But the Islanders last win at the Bell Centre dates back to an overtime victory during the 2008-09 season (Mar. 12, 2009).
“I think we had good preparation for playing Montreal, playing them in back-to-back games,” Wisniewski said. “The last two practices have been shifted towards their style of play and their systems. We are working on things that are going to help us in the next two games.”
But the defenseman knows the next two games are going to be challenging as the last time the Islanders earned a point at the Bell Centre was October 26, 2009 when they lost in overtime and the Islanders most recent win at the Coliseum came in the shootout on Apr. 6, 2010.
They have been playing together for quite a while,” Wisniewski said. “They have pretty much a core group of guys there and they have a lot of speed and a lot of skill. They fly around. So when you go in there, you have to be ready to play. And they have a sixth guy on the ice in their fans.”
The long days on the road are nowhere near over for the Islanders. Although the team has played five of their last six games in other cities, they will play six more games on the road, with just two at home on Long Island in the next three weeks.
But the extremely ambitious Islanders are definitely up for the challenge.
“We want to feel good about what we’ve done so far, but at the same time, we want to raise the bar,” said Gordon. “We don’t want to get ourselves thinking that it’s going to be easy every night because it’s not.”
And Wisniewski knows that the past few days of practice have prepared the team for the road ahead, especially for his fellow defensemen who are new to the Islanders system (Mark Eaton, Mike Mottau and Milan Jurcina) and who, like himself, just need a little bit of reinforcement from time to time.
“We have to make sure we learn the system and try to make it second nature,” Wisniewski said. “For us to be able to work on it at practice, game like situations, it becomes easier when it comes to game time.”
Most of all, the Islanders plan to stick to their system and approach the double header as if it were a 120 minute game because how they perform in the first game will affect how they play in the second.
“We almost approach it as 120 minute game,” Moulson said. “What you do in the first game is going to affect what you do in the second game, so I think it’s important to really come out hard in the first one. We do have that day in between, but what we do in that first game might dictate what happens in the second game. So it’s fun to play in those (home-and-home series). You get to face them right away. It’s a two-game battle.”
Islanders forward Michael Grabner is not making the trip to Montreal after a groin injury sustained in Florida kept him sidelined from Tuesday morning’s practice at Iceworks. Trent Hunter (foot) will be making the trip, but as a precaution, the Islanders have called up Matt Martin from the Bridgeport Sound Tigers on an emergency basis.
If Martin cracks the lineup, this will be his first NHL game this season.
“I am definitely very excited,” said Martin. “Montreal is a very crazy place and it’s probably going to be a pretty emotional game after what happened in preseason. If I’m in the lineup, I am definitely looking forward to it.”
Forward Rob Schremp, who has been on injured reserve since a preseason back injury has kept him out of the lineup, skated with his teammates for the first time Tuesday morning.
“We’re obviously encouraged that he (Schremp) is out there practicing with us,” Gordon said. “That means he’s closer to being back in the line up and as soon as he gets a little more push back in his game, then we will know we are closer to having him ready.”