- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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"Everyone on the team has gone out of the way to make us feel accepted," says Flatley, whose line scored all four goals in Canada's 4-2 win over the U.S. at Sarajevo. "It's not just one or two guys. It's the whole organization. [Director of scouting] Gerry Ehman took us aside before our first game and asked us how things were going. I said I was more nervous than I thought I would be. He said, 'Nervous? After all you've been through at the Olympics? Just remember, this isn't a one-or two-night thing. This is the start of a long relationship.' "
Six minutes into his first game, Flatley, who's 6'2", 195 pounds, slammed Winnipeg forward Lucien DeBlois into the boards, came away with the puck and fired a wrist shot past Doug Soetaert for his first NHL goal. It was the sort of honest, workmanlike effort that characterizes Flatley's play, earning him comparisons with Bob Nystrom and John Tonelli, the other premier Islander muckers.
LaFontaine, who's 5'9" and weighs 180, was held scoreless in Winnipeg but in his second game exploded with a hat trick and two assists in an 11-6 Islander win at Toronto. "Everything we heard about them is true," said Bourne, who immediately drew comparisons between LaFontaine and Chicago center Denis Savard. Arbour, for his part, saw likenesses between LaFontaine and L.A.'s Marcel Dionne, who's closing in on 600 goals for his career. In his first home game, LaFontaine gave Islander fans a taste of his artistry when, in the third period of a 3-1 defeat of the Flyers, he scored from the face-off in a neat little move that he had first used as a Pee Wee. Squaring off against Philadelphia rookie Ron Sutter, LaFontaine heard Flyer goalie Bob Froese warn his teammates to watch for a shot from the point. "I figured that was a good time to try it," said LaFontaine, who deftly tapped the puck through Sutter's legs, slid inside him to pick it up again and fired a shot into the top corner before anyone else seemed to have moved. John LaFontaine, a Chrysler plant manager and Pat's Pee Wee coach, was watching the game from the stands, and afterward he recalled the first time he had seen his son work that play. "There were 11 seconds left in a tie game, and Pat told me to leave him out there because he wanted to try something on the face-off."
Indeed, LaFontaine seems to manufacture scoring chances out of seemingly harmless situations. In his three weeks with the Islanders, he has already scored in virtually every way imaginable—breakaways, face-offs, rebounds, slap shots from the slot. "He's not very big, but he sticks his nose in there," says an admiring Arbour, who also has been pleasantly surprised by LaFontaine's defensive play. "He's not going to bowl anybody over in our zone, but he is going to eliminate somebody."
Last Saturday—St. Patrick's Day—before the Isles took on the Caps, Poile jokingly asked Torrey if LaFontaine had a bonus clause in his six-figure contract for scoring 10 goals this year. LaFontaine already had seven in his first seven games, but Torrey quickly informed Poile that five of those goals had come at the expense of the woeful Maple Leafs, who are last in the Norris Division. "It's going to be different tonight," Torrey said, referring to the Capitals' league-leading defense, the likes of which LaFontaine had yet to face.
But if Torrey was worried that LaFontaine might turn out to be one of those players who just show up for the runaways, he can set his mind at rest. In a preview of what might well be the playoff matchup that decides who meets Edmonton for the Stanley Cup, New York and Washington played an old-style, up-and-down, close-checking game in which LaFontaine was the best Islander forward. In the first period he gave the Isles a 1-0 lead by gathering a rebound from behind the goal, gliding to the side of the net and, just when everyone expected him to pass or skate out front, tucking the puck between goalie Pat Rig-gin's skate and the near post from an almost impossible angle.
"I've never seen LaFontaine play a game in which he didn't get at least one good scoring chance," lamented Poile. "That didn't even look like a scoring chance, but I guess we have to count it."
The Caps recovered, shutting down the Isles and LaFontaine the rest of the way, to win 2-1 and move within a single point of the division-leading Islanders. Still, the true test—the playoffs—is still to come. With Trottier, Bossy and Greg Gilbert; Brent and Duane Sutter and Bourne; and LaFontaine, Tonelli and Nystrom, the Islanders have three excellent scoring lines—plus an intimidating checking trio of Gillies, Goring and Flatley. "The teams we'll have to beat have one or two checking lines," says Torrey. "Not three. LaFontaine gives us another line. He's unique. I don't really think he reminds me of anybody. Even when he has a bad night, or a night when they're climbing all over him, he still gets his scoring chances."
There's a difference between this year's Islander team and the teams that have won the past four Stanley Cups. This year's team must score, and score often, to win. The Isles have slipped from first to fourth in overall team defense, allowing 29 more goals in 73 games this season than they did in 80 games last year. In games in which they've scored three or fewer goals, the Isles are a horrific 2-22-0. When they score four times or more, they are 43-4-2. It's a dangerous way to win, since a hot goaltender in a short series can singlehandedly eliminate a team that relies on its offense. (Witness what Islander goalie Billy Smith did to the Oilers last year.) Still, the Islanders have a way of tightening the screws when the money is on the line, and you would have to say the chances look good for the Cup's standing pat on Long Island. You might even say they look great.