We all know the NHL’s regular season doesn’t have an especially frenetic pace. It isn’t the World Hotdog Eating Championship. It’s about the long haul and taking your medicine, no matter how bitter, each and every day. So let me preface what I’m about to say with the usual acknowledgements that it’s early and there’s much hockey to be played between now and the start of the playoffs.
But I watched the New York Islanders come from behind to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 4-3 Friday – and for this one night, anyway, I could see a lot of what GM Garth Snow has had in mind all these years. I could see tangible evidence the Isles could beat any team in the NHL.
The Islanders’ rivalry with the Penguins has turned into one of the league’s best and it delivered a terrific game Friday night in Pittsburgh. But it didn’t leave the home crowd happy, as the Isles rallied from a 2-1 Pens lead after two periods and escaped with a road win that improved their record to 4-3-3. That record tells you all you need to know about the Islanders’ status as a work in progress, and certainly, they didn’t play a perfect game to beat the Penguins; Sidney Crosby & Co. out-shot the visitors 42-25 and were employing rookie goalie Jeff Zatkoff, who turned in an .840 save percentage on the night.
But when the comeback was happening, you could see the Isles believing in themselves, believing they were better than that mediocre record, believing they had something to prove. And when Josh Bailey – the 2008 first-round draft pick who has yet to assert himself as a big-money NHLer prior to this year – scored the game’s final goal with 1:40 left in regulation, it made for a moment that could be a big building block for this often-ridiculed franchise. (The assist on the winning goal came from Kyle Okposo, another young Islander who hasn’t grown into a star equivalent to his high draft status.)
The Isles also got a banner night from two-way center Frans Nielsen, who posted a goal and three points on the night to give him 14 points so far this season and move into a tie with Lightning star Steven Stamkos for fourth overall in league point production. That likely won’t continue throughout the year, but the improvement in the team’s secondary scoring lessens the pressure on captain John Tavares (who still had an assist against Pittsburgh).
Look, I’ve made fun of the Isles’ bumbling and out-there ideas over the years. They’re the only NHL team that could have its own E! True Hollywood Story. But I’m not interested in denying credit if it’s due. And if the Isles keep up the same resilience I saw Friday, I won't be the only one talking about them in a much different manner that we've all been accustomed to.