By Bill Whitehead
Remember the New York Islanders and how they factored into the Florida Panthers’ season a year ago? They were the season-opening opponent, hosting Florida on Long Island in that incredibly outdated, mausoleum of a hockey arena. The Panthers’ win that night was typical for the 2011-2012 season and set the tone for the team’s run to the Southeast Division crown with a 2-0 win behind a power-play goal, reliable defensive play and stellar goaltending.
Jason Garrison scored the power-play goal that night after Stephen Weiss scored Florida’s first goal of the season. In his Florida debut, goaltender Jose Theodore was rock solid and showed a preview of the consistency he would give the club in net during the season by recording 27 saves in authoring the 31st shutout of his career. Oddly, one of those players is already gone, and a very good chance exists that the other two won’t be back as well. Weiss and Theodore are both unrestricted free agents, and their future with the Panthers is uncertain right now.
Instead of remembering the past, though, the Panthers (13-22-6, 32 pts.) will look to the future in Tuesday night’s game (7 p.m., Sun Sports). Fans are still waiting for Nick Bjugstad to score a goal or get on the score sheet. Same for Quinton Howden. In fact, the first goal by either will put him just one behind Drew Shore. Yep, that’s another achievement worth clamoring for — a third goal by Shore. The rookie has seemingly hit the wall, scoring just twice in 36 games. Defenseman T.J. Brennan has two in 12 games, and had two taken away on deflections. Also, it would be nice to see Jonathan Huberdeau (one goal in last 15 games) get a leg up on the Calder competition.
Someone said the other day that he was in a bar in New York, and hockey highlights came on the TV. A fellow patron leaned over and said, “Hey, did you see that Islanders game?” I think the last time anyone said that, even in the City That Never Sleeps, may have been 1983 when The Police (“Every Breath You Take”) and Michael Jackson (“Billie Jean”) were battling it out for top song and most of the guys had steely eyes and were riveted on steel worker Jennifer Beals in Flashdance. That’s not exactly yesterday, folks. In that game last Saturday that the bar patron was referencing, the Islanders lost to the hated rival Rangers, dropping a 1-0 home game in overtime, but the rallying cry could likely be heard echoing throughout those dark, dank spaces of Nassau Coliseum: “Hey, at least we earned a point!”
The Islanders (21-16-5, 47 pts.) are clinging to the seventh spot in the playoff standings, just three points ahead of ninth-place Winnipeg, and are a fun team to watch. They have a legitimate Hart Trophy candidate in skillful John Tavares (24-18-42), plus 30-point scorers in wingers Matt Moulson (13-26-39) and Brad Boyes (8-23-31). Casey Cizikas burned Florida last month with the game-winning goal in New York’s 4-3 win at BB&T Center after the Panthers rallied from a 3-0 deficit. Michael Grabner, a player Cat fans are all too familiar with, is a burner on the ice who presents plenty of problems for defensemen on long stretch passes. On the back end, veteran Evgeni Nabokov is 20-11-5 in his 36 starts, logging a 2.50 GAA and a .911 save percentage.
But, really, who are these New York Islanders?
Simple. They’re the feel-good story of the Eastern Conference, an underdog team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2007 — a club that is generally overlooked, underestimated and not taken very seriously by hockey fans in the metropolitan New York area. A team who has stunk up the joint for a long while but appears to be headed to the postseason.
They’re last year’s Florida Panthers.
GETTING DRAFTY: In Calgary, the improving Flames dropped a 4-3 game to the Minnesota Wild, who received two goals from newly acquired Jason Pominville. The Flames have 36 points — four more than last-place Florida…In Denver, Columbus tied the game late on a goal by R.J. Umberger, then Nick Foligno scored with 28.7 seconds left in overtime to carry the Blue Jackets past the Avalanche for the win. The single point added by Colorado brings their total to 35, putting them 29th in the NHL…Carolina (36 points) and Tampa Bay (37) both play tonight — the Hurricanes in Ottawa, the Lightning in Winnipeg.