While the 2000s weren't a particularly fruitful decade for the New York Islanders franchise, we always try to stay positive in this space. Believe us, at times it has been a challenge over the last ten years. But looking back, there was one Islander team of the last 10 that clearly stood above the rest for us: the 2001-2002 squad.
After enduring seven years of playoff absence and an absurd coaching carousel, in '01-'02 the Isles finally started to get things right. Under the leadership of youthful, new coach Peter Laviolette, fans finally had a reason to believe in the Orange and Blue again.
While it may not have finished the way the fans wanted, the season was a marvelous ride that left people hungering and expecting more from the franchise. Positivity, which had been seemingly on permanent hiatus (an oxymoron that most clearly describes the state of the team at the time), was back on Long Island.
The 2001-2002 version of the Isles started off in fine fashion. Led by scorers Alexei Yashin (32 G, 43 A, 75 P), Mark Parrish (30 G, 30 A, 60 P), and Mike Peca (25 G, 35 A, 60 P), the Isles came out of the gate flying. Winners of their first 4 games and 11 of their first 14 overall, the team vaulted right to the top of the Atlantic Division standings. They battled with the Philadelphia Flyers and New Jersey Devils for supremacy right until the final games of the regular season.
Solid play was found not only in the offensive zone, but on the blue line as well by our personal favorite defensive corps of the decade. Adrian Aucoin contributed 34 points and a delightful +23 to a group that included stalwarts Kenny Jonsson and Roman Hamrlik. Eric Cairns kept other teams in line with his 176 penalty minutes that season, the statistical leader in the category.
Speaking of favorites, that year the Isles also sported two pretty good netminders in Chris Osgood (32 W, 2.50 GAA) and current general manager Garth Snow (2.71 GAA). Unfortunately, Osgood only stayed with the franchise for one more season, as at the time the Isles were grooming a confident, young Rick DiPietro at the minor league level in Bridgeport.
2001-2002 was also the first season that Isles fans got to see Jason Blake, who would eventually have several productive seasons of his own (40 goals in 2006-2007, as an example). While we initially derided his trade from the Los Angeles Kings as one that had obtained "the wrong Blake" (the Kings moved defenseman Rob Blake in a separate deal to Colorado that season), it was we who were in the wrong. While Jason netted only 8 goals in '01-'02, we saw the talent that the undersized center possessed.
Although the Isles couldn't and didn't sustain their torrid pace, they did end the season with 96 points, good for second place in the division and a #5 seed in the playoffs. It was their highest point total in 18 seasons, and an outstanding 44 point improvement over the previous campaign. The Islanders missed winning their first division title since 1987-1988 by a single point, though, and earned a date with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round of the postseason.
The playoffs were memorable, but in the end, disappointing. The home team won every game, and unfortunately the decisive seventh game was played in Toronto. It was an extremely physical matchup, and people most vividly remember the injuries to Peca and Jonsson. And a penalty shot from this guy. That roar had been missing from the Coliseum for far too long in our opinion. But it showed how passionate, even rabid, the Islander fanbase can be when they have a team to get behind.
Sadly, the Islanders tried three more times over the next four seasons to get past the first round of the playoffs and could not. Laviolette eventually departed for Carolina and won a Stanley Cup. Alexei Yashin's name became a dirty word on Long Island. Players like Parrish, Peca, Jonsson, and Brad Isbister never matched their point totals again after that season. The NHL work stoppage came and the Islanders were forced to build it all again. And that's about where we are today.
But for one terrific season the Isles captured the spirit of the dynasty years. And so we nominate the 2001-2002 New York Islanders as our team of the decade.