UNIONDALE, NY- No captain’s crest was placed on any Islander uniform last night while only one actually stepped on the Nassau Coliseum ice against the Rangers Thursday night.
But one day after shipping Bill Guerin to Pittsburgh at the trade deadline, the Isles played through the leadership void, putting forth a spirited effort before falling short in a 4-2 loss to the Blueshirts in front of a sell-out crowd.
Coach Scott Gordon did not name the 12th captain in team history following Guerin’s departure to the playoff-contending Penguins. Instead, Richard Park, Brendan Witt and Trent Hunter were also designated as assistant captains, though Park spent Thursday night watching from the Nassau Coliseum press box as he recovers from broken ribs and Witt continues to serve his five-game NHL suspension for elbowing Toronto forward Niklas Hagman in the head.
Injuries and the trades that shipped out Guerin and Mike Comrie forced the roster’s young players to take increased roles. Blake Comeau relished the opportunity, logging his second two-point game of the season with a goal and an assist. The 23-year-old now has three points in the past two games, giving Islanders fan at least something to cheer about as the Isles fell to 20-37-7 and claim a NHL-low 47 points.
“It’s an opportunity for the young guys to step up and prove that they can play here,” Comeau said. “It’s not the easiest thing to get opportunity in this league but when you do, you want to be ready and you want to make the most of it.”
Comeau scored his fourth goal of the season, driving to the net and sending the puck underneath goalie Henrik Lundqvist’s pads 5:37 into the second period, answering Nikolai Zherdev’s game-opening tally to knot the score at 1. Chris Drury put the Rangers ahead again
almost three minutes later, deflecting new acquisition Nik Antropov’s pass past goalie Yann Danis to put the Blueshirts ahead 2-1.
Then the Rangers registered the put-away goal that served as a microcosm of the Isles play: tireless and hard working but not enough to finish strong. Dean McAmmond raced into the Rangers zone before colliding with a teammate near the blue line.
The aggressive mistake facilitated a two-on-chance the other way, culminating in Zherdev’s one-time pass to Scott Gomez’s stick blade.
Gomez easily pushed the shot past a sprawling Danis for a 3-1 edge.
Gordon said he was pleased with the effort of a team that could easily be mistaken for AHL Bridgeport. Call-ups like Jesse Joensuu, Andre MacDonald, Joe Callahan and Joel Rechlicz have turned the Islanders dressing room into a Sound Tiger reunion because of injuries and front office transactions.
“The guys played with tremendous energy and all the guys that came up from Bridgeport played well,” Gordon said. It was a great environment to be a part of.
“There wasn’t anybody who had an off-night tonight. From top to bottom, we were pretty solid. They [the Rangers] had some bounces but in saying that, I think we gave ourselves a pretty good chance to come back in the game but it wasn’t meant to be tonight.”
At 35, Dean McAmmond joins the injured Doug Weight as the Islanders elder statesmen. Acquired in last month’s trade with Ottawa, McAmmond said he empathizes with the call-ups trying to prove themselves, relating their experiences to his situation as 19-year-old with the Oilers in the 1993-94 season.
“When I was a young guy in Edmonton starting out, I thought I was a pretty good player and was looking to prove myself,” McAmmond said. “It’s a great opportunity for these [young] guys to come in, work hard and play against a team like that. This is an important game for then. They came out
hard and I think we adjusted pretty good. A couple of breaks and it could have been different.”
Jack Hillen, another Isles’ youth movement member, made things interesting by scoring his first NHL goal at an opportune time. The 23-year-old blue liner brought the Isles within a goal of
tying it with a hard shot that skipped past Lundqvist 3:44 into the final period. The Rangers added a power play goal with 6:36 remaining, securing the win to end the Isles modest two-game winning streak and three-game point streak.
“Dean made a great pass to me off the wall and I went wide and waited for some support,” Hillen said about his goal. “When the opportunity presents itself, I’m definitely going to try and jump up in the play because that’s a part of my game and that’s part of what [Gordon] wants me to do.”