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Answering the call

Isles bounce back from struggles to right ship in playoff race

Posted: Sunday March 16, 2003 2:43 PM

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By Jon A. Dolezar,

It will go down in history as a classic battle. A seven-game war with the physical hatred of old-time hockey. The final score of Game 7 was disheartening, sure, but even making the playoffs last year was a bold first step for the rejuvenated Islanders franchise.

Eleven months later we find the 2002-03 Islanders fighting for the final playoff spot rather than the Atlantic Division title. A five-game winless streak from March 3-11 put their playoff hopes in peril, but back-to-back 5-2 wins at Edmonton and Ottawa on Thursday and Saturday have the Isles looking good to nail down a postseason berth. It won't be as pretty as last year, since they are likely to finish with about 86 points compared to 96, but a first-round meeting with Ottawa would be intriguing.

"I think before we were worrying too much about who was where [in the standings]," center Dave Scatchard told The Canadian Press after Saturday's game. "Now we're just trying to win games. You can make a big deal out of this if you want, but everything changes in the playoffs."

Ottawa is 2-1-1 against New York this season, but the Isles dominated the Sens at the Corel Centre on Saturday despite being outshot 33-24. Excellent goaltending by Garth Snow and solid defense play by New York's top-four defensemen surrendered only two goals to Ottawa's dangerous top three lines.

"We've got a team that's filled with character," Laviolette told The New York Times. "We respond well in situations where we need to respond well."

The makeup of this year's Islanders squad is very different from last year's bunch. Last season the Isles relied heavily on their top two lines, but now they are a much more balanced team offensively. Jason Blake has more then doubled his previous career-best point total, while Scatchard and Jason Wiemer have picked up the slack for Mark Parrish and Shawn Bates, who are scoring slightly less than last year.

New York's $10 million man, Alexei Yashin, was relegated to fourth-line duty for a few weeks and is now playing on the third line with Randy Robitaille on his left and rotating cast of characters (recently Mattias Weinhandl or Bates) on the right side. Tough guys Steve Webb and Arron Asham have been fourth-line mainstays, with the latter being the result of a summertime swap with the Canadiens for Mariusz Czerkawski that now looks surprisingly tilted in the Isles' favor. Asham gives head coach Peter Laviolette 12 minutes of rugged play per game, and has chipped in with a career-high 24 points as well.

But the key cog for the Islanders is captain Michael Peca, who is being mentioned as a darkhorse Hart Trophy candidate. Peca doesn't have the gaudy numbers (13 goals and 25 assists in 56 games), but the best argument for his candidacy is the team's 27-18-8-2 record since his made his full-time return on Nov. 14, not couting the token 27 seconds he played in a 6-1 loss to the Blues on Nov. 2. The Isles won just 34.4 percent (5-10-1-0) of their games without him.

Tuesday's deadline deal which sent Brad Isbister and Raffi Torres to the Oilers yielded Janne Niinimaa, a brilliant move by Mike Milbury to rid himself of his biggest headache (Isbister) and solidify the defense with another rugged body. Niinimaa and Roman Hamrlik played 2 1/2 years together with the Oilers, so their reunion on New York's second defense pair behind Kenny Jonsson and Adrian Aucoin was a natural following the acquisition. With Aucoin playing a superhuman 29:28 per game, Laviolette may not have to resort to his third pair of Eric Cairns and Mattias Timander too often.

The Islanders should know more about their postseason fate at the end of what will be a week of reckoning. On Monday, they head into Manhattan to face the Rangers, with the pleasureable task of potentially killing the Blueshirts' playoff hopes. On Tuesday, the Islanders are in Toronto for a renewal of their emerging rivalry with the Leafs. On Thursday, the Isles travel to Montreal to face the Habs, who enter the week five points behind for the final spot in the East. And finally, on Saturday, the Islanders play host to the Devils, a possible first-round opponent if New York could get past Boston to finish in the seventh spot.

It's a different team than last year's Cinderella bunch, but these Islanders could be poised to make another team first-round castaways this April.

Manic Monday
Pour yourself a Guinness and settle into the easy chair for a great night of hockey on St. Patrick's Day. While the Blue Jackets-Thrashers and Blackhawks-Sharks games may be stinkers, the remaining four games are ripe with postseason implications. The Flyers are just two points behind the Devils, so a win would move them into a tie at 91 points atop the Atlantic, though Jersey currently holds the tiebreaker with more victories. The Wild and Lightning have both hung in the playoff race after many thought they would fade away faster than Mandy Moore's career. The Oilers lead the Predators by eight for the final berth in the West, and will be in Nashville with a chance to start pounding the nails in the Preds' playoff coffin. And finally, the Canucks meet the Stars in Big D, as the two teams duke it out to try to gain home-ice advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs.

Just passing through
The Leafs and Canucks made what seemed like good moves at the trade deadline by picking up savvy veterans Doug Gilmour and Brad May, respectively. But a knee injury to Gilmour and a concussion to May could shelve these old-timers for the duration of the regular season. Credit Pat Quinn and Brian Burke for making smart deals to get additional veteran leadership in their locker rooms for the stretch drive, but they knew the risks associated with taking on a couple of guys who vividly remember when Duran Duran was cool.

Vancouver @ St. Louis -- Tuesday, 8 p.m. EST
Blues general manager Larry Pleau must've been sweating profusely through Chris Osgood's first start on Saturday. If Ozzie laid on egg, Pleau might not have been welcomed back inside the Savvis Center for failing to acquire Sean Burke. Fortunately, Osgood blanked the Preds 1-0, but the Canucks will provide a more stern test for the new Blues netminder is his first start in the Show Me State.
Boston @ San Jose -- Friday, 10:30 p.m. EST
After a promising start to his career with the Bruins, Kyle McLaren hit a developmental wall and earned the ire of GM Mike O'Connell by holding out to start this season. Since getting traded to the Sharks in January, McLaren has just four assists and is a minus-8 in 22 games. Nonetheless, it should be fun to watch Joe Thornton do battle with his former teammate in the slot.
Carolina @ Montreal -- Saturday, 7 p.m. EST
Last year these teams met in a roller-coaster six-game series in the Eastern Conference semifinals. While the Canadiens still harbor faint playoff hopes, the 'Canes are just hoping to beat out the Sabres, Penguins and Thrashers for the booby prize of having the worst record. But unless the Habs can beat the Devils and Islanders earlier in the week, this one may be just about pride.

Plus: Brett Hull
The best pure sniper of this generation scored twice last week to move past Mike Gartner for fifth place on the all-time goals list. The Golden Brett now trails only Wayne Gretzky (894), Gordie Howe (801), Marcel Dionne (731) and Phil Esposito (717).
Minus: Vincent Damphousse
Stuck in a sinking organization, Damphousse wouldn't waive his no-trade clause to go to Colorado or Vancouver at the deadline. Avs GM Pierre Lacroix is his former agent, so it's even more surprising the two couldn't compromise on his salary demands for next year. Nearing the end of his career, you would think Damphousse would value another run at the Cup more than one more big payday.
Plus: Steve Sullivan
The diminutive Blackhawks right winger has seven goals and two assists in the past three games. Sully has 23 goals, 30 assists and an impressive plus-18 this season. He has clicked with Eric Daze since the 6-foot-6 left winger returned from an ankle infection March 9.
Minus: Manny Fernandez
After a six-game unbeaten streak, Fernandez imploded by allowing five goals on 12 shots in the first period of Saturday's 5-0 shellacking by the Blue Jackets. Fernandez's goals-against average jumped from 2.28 to 2.43. Dwayne Roloson, on the other hand, made 20 saves in two periods after coming off the bench to lower his GAA to 1.96, second only to Marty Turco's 1.77.
Plus: Tony Amonte
Philadelphia freedom, indeed. Amonte has played splendidly since being reunited with former Blackhawks, Team USA and Thayer Academy teammate Jeremy Roenick. With one goal and four assists in his first two games as a Flyer, Amonte is providing the offensive punch Philly desperately needed.
Minus: NHL trade fine print
Dean McAmmond is the victim in what is the most bizarre trade flub in league history. Colorado, Calgary and the league office forgot to read Article 13.36 of the collective bargaining agreement. Now McAmmond can only sit and watch for the rest of the year -- granted, while collecting the balance of his $1.4 million salary.
Plus: B. Thomas Golisano
The Rochester billionaire just needs to cross the t's and dot the i's in a few weeks to officially become the new owner of the Buffalo Sabres. After last summer's Adelphia scandal with the Rigas gang, Golisano is a breath of fresh air to hockey fans in upstate New York. Golisano made a failed bid for the New York state house last year, but now he will be an NHL Governor instead, and have far fewer political headaches than Gov. George Pataki.

"I've embarrassed everybody and my family by this one comment. It's not what they represent and it's not what the Sault Greyhounds organization represents."

-- John Vanbiesbrouck, former NHL goalie and former head coach and GM of Sault Ste. Marie of the OHL after resigning Monday for using a racial slur to describe Greyhounds defenseman Trevor Daley.

"It was men against boys. That's the way it looked tonight. We weren't close. They're a great team. That's what $75 million does."

-- Blue Jackets head coach Doug MacLean after his team lost to the Avalanche 5-1 on Thursday.

"Playing with Chris will make me feel young again, that's for sure."

-- New Red Wings defenseman Mathieu Schneider, 33, after finding out Detroit head coach Dave Lewis plans to play him with 41-year-old Chris Chelios.

"It was weird. There were times out there when I thought I was in a red jersey. When we were forechecking and they were breaking out of the zone, I was a little in between. So hopefully that won't happen again when we play them next week."

-- Mighty Ducks right wing Steve Thomas after playing the Blackhawks just 24 hours after they traded him to Anaheim.

The trade deadline can be a boon to an NHL teams' stretch drive, but it can also help or hurt a contending fantasy team. SportsTicker's Craig Rondinone says Tony Amonte, Owen Nolan and Chris Osgood are among the traded players who will thrive in their new location.

Also, click here to join an Fantasy Hockey league or to sign up your league with the Hockey Commissioner service.

Dan Snyder, C, Thrashers
Snyder went undrafted in the 1996 NHL Entry Draft, but he blossomed over his last three seasons with OHL Owen Sound and signed with Atlanta as a free agent on July 6, 1999. The Thrashers kept him with their IHL affiliate in Orlando for two seasons before calling him up for two games at the end of the 2000-01 season. Snyder had 35 points with the AHL Chicago Wolves last regular season and then scored 17 in 22 playoff games while helping the Wolves win the Calder Cup.

He played seven games with the Thrashers to start this season before getting sent down to Chicago on Oct. 30 after a slow start. Snyder has been back up with the big club since Jan. 20 and is the type of pest/energy player that Thrashers head coach Bob Hartley had in Eric Messier in Colorado.

Snyder scored four goals last week and now has nine goals in 31 games this season. Though he spends most of his time on Atlanta's fourth line with pluggers Jeff Cowan and Jeff Odgers, Hartley thinks enough of him that he let Snyder center Slava Kozlov and Dany Heatley for one game while Marc Savard was out with the flu.

Mighty Ducks' power-play percentage (2 of 61) on their last 61 power plays.
Devils' winning percentage (29-6-4-1) when scoring first.
Number of goaltenders used by the St. Louis Blues this season (Brent Johnson, Fred Brathwaite, Curtis Sanford, Tom Barrasso, Reinhard Divis, Cody Rudkowsky and Chris Osgood), tying them with the 1989-90 Quebec Nordiques (Ron Tugnutt, Greg Millen, Sergei Mylnikov, Scott Gordon, Stephane Fiset, Mario Brunetta and John Tanner).
Record number of combined wins by goaltenders in the same game, set when Curtis Joseph (375) met Patrick Roy (544) on Saturday.

Our latest best guess at what the postseason seeding will look like.
Eastern Conference Western Conference
Ottawa Senators Detroit Red Wings
New Jersey Devils Dallas Stars
Tampa Bay Lightning Vancouver Canucks
Philadelphia Flyers Colorado Avalanche
Toronto Maple Leafs St. Louis Blues
Washington Capitals Minnesota Wild
Boston Bruins Anaheim Mighty Ducks
New York Islanders Edmonton Oilers

Each week during the season, this space will be devoted to your comments on a particular issue.

Last week's topic: What five active players would make up your dream power-play unit?

I would take Rob Blake and Al MacInnis at the point, with Peter Forsberg, Milan Hejduk and Brett Hull as the forwards. The reason I would take Blake and MacIniss is because of their wicked hard slap shots. Forsberg and Hedjuk are pure goal scorers, and Hull needs no explanation.
Coby P., Flora Vista, N.M.

Brian Leetch and Al MacInnis at the point with Jaromir Jagr, Pavel Bure and Mario Lemieux up front. I'm pretty sure that unit could score against 10 skaters, let alone four.
Chip, New York

Nicklas Lidstrom is the best offensive defenseman in the league and Al MacInnis is a veteran with one of the hardest shots. Peter Forsberg is one of the smartest and most consistant players ever. Jarimir Jagr has a knack for the goal and is one of the best on the power play. And lastly, Todd Bertuzzi because he is a big bruiser who turning out to be one of the league's top forwards.
Clint Borchadt, San Antonio, Texas

On the blue line, I'll take Mathieu Schnieder because he is handy with the stick and Al MacInnis because of his big shot. Then I need a gritty corner man, so I'll go with Peter Forsberg -- he may draw another penalty and get me a 5-on-3. How about a nifty stick-handler? Let's take Joe Sakic. Finally, a strong finisher with big one-timers -- gotta go Brett Hull. My unit looks a little long on years, eh? But experience on the power play is good.
Bill Hunt, St. Paul, Minn.

My five dream choices for a power play lineup would be Markus Naslund, Todd Bertuzzi, Peter Forsberg, Nicklas Lidstrom, and Al MacInnis. Naslund and Forsberg were probably the best pair of forwards ever to play together in the World Juniors, and Naslund and Bertuzzi are arguably the best pair of forwards in the NHL today. Lidstrom is easily the most talented defenseman in the league, and what can you say about MacInnis' shot?
Louis Agassiz, Victoria, British Columbia

My dream power play unit would include Al MacInnis and Paul Karyia( a forward but this is a fantasy unit) at the point, and up front Mario Lemieux at center, with Todd Bertuzzi and Jarome Ignila, with Maclnnis quarterbacking the unit, Bertuzzi creating chaos in front of the net, and Lemieux settiing up Karyia and Ignila in the slot this all Canadian unit would be unstoppable.
Martin Chan, Hamilton, Ontario

I'd take Al MacInnis and any four goons who can give enough room for him to shoot.
Jonathan Paul, Windsor, Ontario

Peter Forsberg for behind-the-net greatness, Al McInnis for point control and slappers, Todd Bertuzzi for being a 250-pound beast with soft hands in front of the net; Brett Hull for being Brett Hull; and Ron Francis for having a great brain to make the whole thing go from the other point.
Benjamin Day, Colorado Springs, Colo.

This week's topic: Which team will have the most success over the next five years?

Click here to send us your choice, with a short (75 words or less) explanation. Brevity and humor are good; naughty words and personal attacks are not so good. And don't forget to include your name, hometown and home state/province.

Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for "Week at a Glance" appears each Sunday during the regular season.

Got a comment, question or scoop for Jon? Click here.

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Jon A. Dolezar: Leafs, Stars earn highest marks for deadline deals
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