By Jon A. Dolezar, CNNSI.com
Hockey on Long Island emerged from a seven-year slump last season.
The Islanders played to rocking crowds at Nassau Memorial Coliseum, as the fans finally bought into general manager Mike Milbury's rebuilding efforts. Owners Charles Wang and Sanjay Kumar also deserve some credit for upping the team's payroll to sign high-priced veterans Alexei Yashin and Michael Peca last offseason.
Those two moves, in addition to the plucking of Chris Osgood off the Red Wings' roster in late September in the waiver draft, turned the franchise around. The result was an improbable 44-point jump in the standings and the team's first playoff berth since 1994.
The Islanders treated their fans to a classic, brutal series against the Leafs before succumbing 4-2 in Game 7 in Toronto. But at least the hope is back.
New York raced out to an 11-1-1-1 record last season, thanks in large part to Mark Parrish's torrid start. Parrish netted eight goals in the first four games and 11 in the opening 11 contests. But after lighting the lamp 22 times in the first 41 games, Parrish hit the wall and scored just eight goals in the last 37 games. A midseason Islanders slump coincided with Parrish's personal slowdown and New York posted a more pedestrian 31-27-7-3 record after the red-hot opening month. Still, playing .500 hockey is a novelty on the Island, where a 50-point season had been the norm for the past seven years.
Considering another 44-point improvement would result in a ridiculous, best-ever season of 140 points, hopes on the Island will be high, though a bit more modest this season. A reasonable goal is for the Islanders to move into the top half of the Eastern Conference in the hopes of hosting a Game 7 in the first round, should it be required.
Yashin's numbers were off slightly from his final two seasons with the Senators, but he seemed much more at peace with himself and the spotlight. Of course, a 10-year, $87.5 million contract can buy a lot of happiness, or at the very least, some patience lessons.
The highlight of the season for Yashin was a productive postseason. After Toronto's Shayne Corson had shadowed Yashin brilliantly in the 1999 and 2001 postseasons, Yashin scored three goals and had seven assists in the seven-game series against Corson and the Leafs.
Scoring depth -- Yashin is going to make any wingers he plays with better, so New York's top line won't be a problem. Peca, Parrish and Shawn Bates clicked on the "Sevens Line," combining for 172 points. But after that ...
Jason Wiemer and Asham aren't going to offer much scoring punch on the fourth line, leaving third-liners Jason Blake, Claude Lapointe and Dave Scatchard to pick up some of the scoring load and take the pressure off Yashin and the big guns.
A change of scenery did wonders for Osgood. Finally free of the pressure of playing in front of the fickle fans in Motown, Osgood put together a credible season and held the Islanders in a freewheeling playoff series against the Maple Leafs with some fine work in the net.
But there were a few bumps in the road. Osgood's mental lapses followed him from Detroit to Long Island, as evidenced by his surrendering four or more goals 34 times in 69 games. And he often has followed up a brilliant season with a very ordinary one. With journeyman Garth Snow on the roster behind him, the Islanders need a healthy, focused Osgood to put together another solid year.
Rick DiPietro had a very strong season in the AHL. It's just that he didn't want to be there.
The supremely confident DiPietro was sensational as a 20-year-old after struggling in his rookie campaign with the Islanders. DiPietro went 3-15-1 with a 3.49 goals-against average and a .878 save percentage in 2000-01, but tore it up once he took a step back to be the man on the minor league club.
The Islanders are likely to keep DiPietro in Bridgeport for the 2002-03 season and hope he can repeat his performance of a year ago and not get bored by playing at the same level. With Osgood entrenched in the crease on the Island, DiPietro needs to prove he can remain motivated with the goal of forcing the Isles to eventually choose between him and Ozzie.
Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for CNNSI.com.