By Gershon Rabinowitz
Two weeks ago, the New York Islanders appeared on the verge of a lost season as the last-place team in the Eastern Conference. But their fortunes began to change under interim head coach Doug Weight with a 4-0-1 mark heading into the All-Star break before facing the Washington Capitals to open the second half of the season.
“We lost some tough games early in the season,” Weight said. “We are digging ourselves out and started entering relevance about a week ago or ten days ago. I think part of the conversation is that we’ve got a long way to go, but the guys believe and now we expect the win before the puck is dropped.”
Evidence of the Islanders’ recent play under Weight was apparent during their 3-2 victory over the Capitals on Tuesday. The tone quickly established itself at the onset of the first period when Alex Ovechkin took a jarring hit from defenseman Nick Leddy in an attempt to gain the slot on a breakaway.
Since the dismissal of former head coach Jack Capuano on February 17, the Islanders made subtle but distinct modifications to a defensive system predicated on the “dump and chase” style of play. With the Capitals sporting seven goal scorers in double figures, the Isles defenders applied pressure in their own zone by remaining in front of each playmaker and altering direction with their shots on goal.
The power play, a noted deficiency for most of the season, provided a necessary spark when Alan Quine pounced on a rebound 2:41 into the second period with the Islanders trailing 1-0 to beat Capitals’ goaltender Philipp Grubauer and even the score. The goal was representative of improved play on each scoring line and the composure emanating from the club in recent games.
“It’s important that we get a contribution from everyone,” Quine explains. “Each of the guys is buying into the system in place. They are doing the right thing and playing for each other right now.”
“There is a little bit of a buzz in this team and a positive energy,” Islanders forward Brock Nelson said. “It is contagious around the locker room. It becomes pretty easy to go out there, relax, have fun, and play hockey. Good things seem to happen when you have the puck.”
The strong teamwork continued to resonate and proved beneficial in the third period as Nelson and Anthony Beauvillier connected with Ryan Strome for the go-ahead tally. For Strome, it was his first goal since December 31 and he explains how the absence of nerves under pressure is one of the primary assets for the Isles during their current winning streak.
“We are trying to be more confident and it feels good when we are winning games,” Strome said. “During the third period, we had no nerves. I think we are pretty poised and things are going well for us. The last couple of games we are getting out of our zone quickly and when you are not in your own zone, you are creating more offense and it is fun to be out there.”
Often times in sports, making a change at the coaching ranks appears as a simple elixir for a team in the doldrums, but components such as roster and past history weigh heavily in the decision. For all the struggles endured under Capuano, it is easy to forget that he led the Isles to consecutive 100-point seasons and was responsible for the heavy lifting during their rebuilding years.
But after seven seasons at the helm, the time arrived for a new voice to lead the way and spearhead their effort.
“When I started, (as the interim head coach) we started to put some new things into the system,” Weight said. “I know these players for a long time and I think there are certain ways to play that are more effective with our team. I think it makes us more confident and we get smart play from all four lines.”
Weight’s early prosperity behind the bench attributes to subtle changes in the current system and an added emphasis on each player’s strengths and positive thought. During their last seven games, the Islanders collected 13 of a possible 14 points and find themselves just three points behind the Philadelphia Flyers for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
As the stakes continue to climb, the Isles are beginning to peak led by a skilled coach and a confident roster.
“The players have executed better. They are working and got some momentum. I have to give them the credit. The coaches work hard to get the most out of them, but the players have worked their butts off and had meetings after the changes were made two weeks ago. They took some responsibility and earned the respect of us.”