SYOSSET, N.Y. – Mark Streit is a rarity for the New York Islanders. The veteran defenceman is one of the few players, who when given the chance to go anywhere, actually chose to play on Long Island.
Nearly five years after he signed his free-agent contract, Streit is about to wear the team’s orange and blue sweater in a playoff game for the first time.
“It’s amazing,” the Islanders captain said Monday after practice. “It’s a great feeling. The past was some rough years, definitely.”
The Swiss defenceman had logged three seasons with the Canadiens when he hit the free-agent market in the summer of 2008. Five years later, the move is finally paying off with a cast of players that weren’t around when he arrived.
With young superstar John Tavares leading the way and veteran Evgeni Nabokov in goal , the Islanders are in the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
Don’t try to bring them down with doom and gloom talk about having to play the top-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins (36-12-0) in the first round of the Eastern Conference tournament.
“The future is bright,” Streit said. “There are a lot of young guys on the team and there is a veteran presence, as well, so it’s a good mix. The future in Brooklyn looks great, as well.
“They are the best team in the Eastern Conference and it’s a big challenge for us, but we beat them, too, this year. In sports, nothing is impossible. They are the big favourite, but it starts at 0-0 and we want to give them a good series.”
The Islanders (24-17-7) know they have nothing to lose once the series begins Wednesday in Pittsburgh. If they can win at least one of the first two games on the road, they will return to what will surely be a raucous Nassau Coliseum for a Game 3 matinee on Sunday.
New York dropped four of five this season against its Atlantic Division rival.
Getting the Penguins early could even be a bonus if star Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby isn’t ready to return to action because of a broken jaw sustained against the Islanders when he was struck in the face by a puck.
“They’re ranked where they are for a reason,” Islanders coach Jack Capuano said of the Penguins. “The ultimate goal is to win the Stanley Cup. If you’re going to get to the Stanley Cup you’ve got to beat the best teams. No matter who we played in the first round, to get there you have to get through them.
“We are asking our guys to be relaxed and focused. That’s all I am asking them to do.”
Sharing this run, no matter how long it lasts, with the core led by Tavares, Matt Moulson, Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey, makes it that much more satisfying for the 35-year-old Streit.
“It’s my fifth season and I played with a lot guys since they came into the league,” Streit said. “You see they are progressing every year, you see the team growing, and finally you make it and it’s an unbelievable feeling for the players, the staff and for the fans who have been waiting for this for a long time.”
It has been 30 years since the dynasty days of the Islanders, those golden times from 1980-83 when the team won four straight Stanley Cups.
The team’s time on Long Island is running out. A move to a new arena in Brooklyn is already scheduled for the 2015-16 season. In a perfect world it will happen sooner, but the Islanders are committed to honouring the lease they have unless given the go-ahead to get out early.
“There is a great deal of excitement that the team is finally getting a first-class building to play in,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. “I’d like to see them in the newer building as soon as possible, but I know the Islanders are prepared to fulfil their obligations under their lease.
“If Nassau County was inclined to let them go earlier, I know they would definitely be interested.”
With a young nucleus and a bright future in front of them, the days of the Islanders being irrelevant in the NHL could soon be over—and perhaps already are.
“I don’t know if people are paying attention to us or not,” said Okposo, the No. 7 pick in the 2006 draft. “We don’t really look at that, we don’t really care. We know what we have here.
While this will be the first post-season game for many of the Islanders, Capuano and several players quickly pointed out that New York has been playing with playoff pressure for weeks as the club fought to finish in the top eight in the East.
“I have been wanting to play in the Stanley Cup playoffs since I was 6 years old,” Okposo said. “It means a lot to me personally. I am very excited, but I will be ready to play.”
The Islanders had their sights set on maybe getting up as high as fifth or sixth, but an 0-1-2 finish at the conclusion of a season-ending, five-game trip, dropped them to eighth. A win by Ottawa on Sunday night in the NHL’s final game set up New York’s matchup with Pittsburgh.
But an 11-1-2 surge leading up to the late-season skid made the playoff berth not merely a hope, but a reality.
“We’re playing some confident hockey and want to take that into the playoffs,” said Moulson, the Islanders’ second-leading scorer behind Tavares. “We’re prepared to try to play any team we’re playing in the playoffs.
“You get into the playoffs, you want to win the Stanley Cup. I think that is enough pressure for anyone.”
While no one was harkening back to the Islanders’ glory days, when this club was the one no one else in the NHL wanted to face, Capuano and some of his players did dip into hockey history to try to make the point that everyone is even now.
Their sights needed to go back just one year when the Los Angeles Kings—the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference—knocked off No. 1 and No. 2 en route to becoming the lowest seed to capture the Stanley Cup.
“We’re in the playoffs, so we’re obviously a team that had a good season, and we really had a strong second half,” said Tavares, whose MVP resume features 28 goals and 47 points. “We had a great run toward the end of the season that we needed to get into the playoffs. That’s going to gain attention.
“We’ve proven we have the ability to make the playoffs and be a tough team to play against and compete with every team in the league. Now it’s another test, another level to challenge ourselves to be successful. This is that next step for us to raise our level. We ultimately want to win the Stanley Cup.”