*The New York Islanders were eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but here at the New York Sports Hub, we are turning back the clock to October to provide a recap of each month of the 2014-15 Islanders season.
The start of the hockey season is a glorious time, when each fanbase can turn to another and say with that small glimmer of hope; “Maybe this is our year…” Sure, there are some franchises that have a better chance than others, but the future is not set in stone and one of the most compelling aspects of sports is that nobody knows 100% what is going to happen.
Heading into Raleigh, South Carolina on October 10th, that sentiment was quite apt for the 2014-15 New York Islanders. After making a brief playoff run in the 2013 lockout shortened season, the team had decidedly fallen back to earth in 2014. General Manager Garth Snow began the season by making a huge splash in trading for Thomas Vanek from the Buffalo Sabres, sending longtime Islanders and fan favorite Matt Moulson upstate.
Despite brief flashes of chemistry with John Tavares and Kyle Okposo, the trade never truly panned out for the Islanders, and Vanek was sent to Montreal at the trade deadline for a paltry handful of picks and prospects.
To make matters worse, Tavares was injured playing for Team Canada at the Sochi Olympics, receiving an injury that would knock him out for the remainder of the season. Without the leader of the team, in addition to their strongest player, the Islanders didn’t muster up much a playoff push, and finished dead last in the Metropolitan Division.
GM Garth Snow sought to rectify the results from the season almost immediately, dealing for Washington Capitol’s goalie Jaroslav Halak. Halak was set to be free agent, but shortly after signing inked a 4 year deal to become the new starting goaltender for the New York Islanders. Snow continued the overhaul in free agency and added forwards Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski to the roster.
Things were relatively quiet in Islanders country until October, when Snow made possibly the two best moves of his tenure on the Island, taking advantage of two salary cap-strapped franchises in the Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks, and receiving Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy to become the new first pairing on the Islander blue line.
Of course, the Islanders had been building up a stockpile of talented prospects over the years mostly thanks to their abysmal regular season performances. Coming into the 14-15 season, there were questions of just which players were going to receive the promotion to the official roster, or remain in Bridgeport for added development.
The preseason saw most of the Islanders young core get a chance to show their stuff, all the way from Ryan Strome to Joshua Ho-Sang. In the end, it was Strome, Griffin Reinhart and Brock Nelson who got the nods, but things definitely would change over the course of the season.
The new acquisitions, in addition to the influx of talented youth allowed the Islander faithful to experience a feeling of legitimate hope for the season. While some still had considered the Islanders a playoff bubble team prior to the Summer of Snow, the influx of new talent made it much of a realistic expectation. But of course, the fatalistic nature of Islander fans took on a “prove it to us” mentality. The team was only too happy to provide right from the get go.
The Islanders had not started a regular season 4-0 in the 13 previous years, but with an exciting shootout win coming over the San Jose Sharks on the 16th, the team managed to accomplish that feat. Back to back season opening wins over the Hurricanes were encouraging, but the true high point for the Islanders came in the third game of the season, when the team traveled to Madison Square Garden for the first of five meetings with the New York Rangers.
5 unanswered goals and a 43 save shutout effort from Jaroslav Halak were the first pieces of evidence that the Islanders had an entirely different ceiling that what had been thought previously. Add to that the impressive early season performances from Leddy and Boychuck (who tallied 3 points in his Islander debut), and the mood was practically giddy amongst Islanders fans.
Wins over the supposedly Stanley Cup contending Sharks and Pittsburgh Penguins bolstered the strong start, as did an Oct. 23rd game in Boston in which backup goaltender Chad Johnson almost singlehandedly delivered a win for the Islanders. With Halak showing #1 stuff, and Johnson doing the same, some began to wonder just how often Johnson should be starting (Stay tuned for further developments in this area as the recaps progress…).
Naturally, that optimism was immediately tempered by a stretch in which the Islanders closed out October by losing 4 of 6 contests, including a 5-0 loss to the Colorado Avalanche on Oct. 30th, the final game of the month. Lurking ahead were games at San Jose, Anaheim, and the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings. Regardless of whether the more even-tempered fans wanted to admit, that stretch had the feeling of a “make or break” for the Islanders 2014-15 season.
*Stay tuned for the Islanders November, coming from Chris Hecker.