(Long Island, NY) The New York Rangers grabbed all the headlines in the offseason. Signing big ticket free agents such as Chris Drury and Scott Gomez will do that in this town, and the Blueshirts were the sexy pick in the Eastern Conference. The New Jersey Devils lost Gomez, but made a splash with their new arena in Newark. The Islanders? Critics had a field day with all of their free agent defections and predicted disaster for them. But after the first eight games of the regular season, it was the team from Long Island that was tied for second place in the Atlantic Division and the other two metropolitan area teams holding up the bottom.
To start off the campaign, the Islanders swept a home-at-home two-game set from the Buffalo Sabres, and have beaten the Rangers (2-1 on October 10) and Devils (4-3 in overtime on October 20) at the Nassau Coliseum. Overall, the Isles have five wins versus three losses, with their only bad game coming in a 8-1 loss in Toronto a day after the Ranger win. Their other two losses have been by a combined three goals, so they have been in every game besides the one blowout loss to the Maple Leafs.
In Saturday’s win against New Jersey, the Islanders pulled off a stunner on Firefighter Appreciation Night by scoring the game-winner on a power play with only 3.7 seconds left in the extra session. Chris Campoli took a shot from the point and new captain Bill Guerin found the loose puck and was able to jam it passed Devils’ goaltender Kevin Weekes, erupting the fans into a frenzy.
For the second consecutive game, the Islanders overcame blowing a two-goal third period lead. Head coach Ted Nolan recognizes this as a sign of his team jelling early. “We give our team a lot of credit; we didn’t fold or feel sorry for ourselves,” he said to reporters following the victory. “We played out the rest of the period, and then found a way in overtime.”
Fellow newcomer Mike Comrie is leading the team with five goals and five assists, with two of those tallies being game winners. Guerin has four goals and six assists. Starting netminder Rick DiPietro has five wins against two losses with a .914 save percentage. Back-up Wade Dubielwicz, who played superbly at the end of the 2006-07 season to lead the team into the eighth and final playoff spot, had his only start against Toronto and surrendered all eight goals.
Campoli has become the team’s top defenseman and had a career-high four assists in a 5-2 win over Washington. He missed 30 games last season with an injury, and the blue-liner signed a new three-year contract in the offseason, keeping the 2004 seventh round draft pick on Long Island. He has received more ice time on the power play this season, and is enjoying that through the first few weeks of the season.
“My role has changed this year,” he said to reporters. “I’m playing more and with more confidence. All that matters is that we keep winning, and I do what I can to contribute.”
Obviously, there is a long way to go and will be twists and turns as the season progresses. Where the Islanders finish still remains to be seen, but they have given their fans hope and have put an exciting
team on the ice with a good mix of veterans and younger players.
Hockey can once again be a three-horse race in this town.