Hockey players like to talk when they win. The New York Islanders sure have had a lot to say lately.
What a difference a month or two makes in sports. And what a departure from the dark days and tight lipped post-game debriefings that formerly defined this hockey team.
Fresh off their fourth consecutive win on home ice (a 4-1 victory over Philadelphia) and seventh win in nine tries, the Isles' locker room was buzzing on Tuesday (4/9) night.
"I've never been in this situation as a pro," Kyle Okposo said of the team's current playoff push. "We're just enjoying it and we're just focused on gettng two points." He added that the team has cut out the mistakes that had led to a number of previous losses and seemingly never ending frustration.
Suddenly the days of blown leads seem well in the rear view mirror, though Head Coach Jack Capuano offered a slightly different argument.
"I think if you go back and look at some of those games, some of the bounces didn't go our way too. I mean there were some crazy bounces that a puck found a way to go in a net."
With all respect to Mr. Capuano, though, who is he kidding? Tuesday night's game offered a perfect example of what has changed for the better.
Early in the first period Colin McDonald crashed into netminder Evegeni Nabokov on a shot he might have otherwise saved. The play was reviewed, and the Flyers were (rightfully) credited with a 1-0 lead. The Islanders rallied past the adversity and eventually took charge, responding with four goals of their own.
Capuano's "unlucky" Isles would have melted faster than a snow cone in July at Jones Beach.
It was this same Philadelphia team, let's not forget, that wiped the floor with the Islanders in a 7-0 home defeat on February 18th.
"We know we can go out there and play with any team in the league. I think we've proven that," said John Tavares, who scored his team-leading 24th goal of the season.
A statement like that is hard to believe when you hear it, considering where this team has been, but it's the new reality on Long Island. With the win, the Islanders vaulted into 6th place points tie in the Eastern Conference, though Ottawa holds a game in hand.
"We're doing the right things when we get into the game. We've been starting a lot better lately than we did earlier in the year, we're obviously playing much more consistent [sic] throughout games." Tavares summarized. "We're playing much better at home."
In addition to his explanation, the biggest differences I can see are threefold. Maturity, communication, and confidence in the face of adversity.
The core of the team has been together for two to three seasons. Tavares, Matt Moulson, Kyle Okposo, Michael Grabner, Josh Bailey have "grown up" together; they know what to expect from each other. While Moulson isn't a youngster, his career has without a doubt flourished as an Islander. The core has finally matured after years of talking about it.
They communicate better on the ice. Capuano once again singled out Frans Nielsen and Travis Hamonic as somewhat unsung heroes. And while Kyle, for example, will still make the occasional 'pass to nobody,' he has been performing the fundamentals of offensive zone play well and has been stronger with the puck.
This has lead to confidence in the face of adversity. It means no longer blowing late leads to teams like Carolina. It means rallying to win against a more physically imposing Flyers squad. It means playing smarter and not turning the puck over in your own zone. It means getting to the net, and getting pucks on net.
"We feel confident. We want to get the lead and when we get it we stress about trying to get that next [goal] and really putting pressure on them and making things hard on the other team, not sitting back."
Well said, John Tavares.
The Islanders will get another chance to test their mettle when they head to Boston on Thursday (4/11) night to face a tough Bruins team.
Should they come away with a win, you can be sure of two things: the turnaround is for real, and playoff games are very likely coming back to Nassau Coliseum.