Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - The New York Islanders sauntered into Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night to face the rival New York Rangers with a collective swagger not seen in almost three decades.
That they walked out of the venerable building attached to Penn Station with a 3-0 victory to cap a seven-game cross-country road trip really doesn't matter.
Jack Capuano's club stood toe-to-toe with one of the hottest clubs in the National Hockey League, in what was probably the most meaningful game between both bitter rivals since Game 5 of the 1984 Patrick Division Semifinals, and look to remain affixed at the forefront of the battle for the Metropolitan Division crown for the remainder of the schedule. Winning was just the icing on the cake.
"Our focus and attitude is all about how we prepare," Capuano told the New York Times after finishing the road swing an impressive 5-2-0. "It's all about character and accountability. This was a big game with a lot of media attention, and I thought we played well. We have a lot of hockey left."
It started and ended with goaltending. Henrik Lundqvist withered at a key time under a 44-shot barrage. Jaroslav Halak, on the other hand, stopped 27 shots to record his sixth shutout of the season and post his 23rd victory this year, in the process becoming just the second Islanders crease guardian to blank the Rangers in Manhattan and the fifth in franchise history to hold their older brothers off the scoreboard.
Venerable troublemaker Billy Smith had been the first and only to record a whitewash on the road, turning the trick way back on Dec. 17, 1975, a 26-save effort which fueled a 3-0 win. In between, Mark Fitzpatrick, Tommy Soderstrom and Rick DiPietro also blanked the Rangers in the comfort of Nassau Coliseum.
In the middle happened to be a three-goal second period which provided Halak all the offense he needed. The goals came from an American collegian (Anders Lee of Notre Dame), a Russian who plied his trade in the KHL before coming to North America (Nikolay Kulemin) and a Dane who arrived in the NHL via his native Scandinavia (Frans Nielsen).
"I think it was just being a little bit more sure of ourselves, no hesitation," Islanders captain John Tavares said. "We went out in the second and you could see us just getting our game going and starting to wear them down, making them have to defend. Eventually we got rewarded. Certainly it's going to make a lot of people on Long Island happy [Wednesday] morning. We're excited about beating them."
With Tavares and Kyle Okposo shut down, the balance in scoring came to the forefront. The Islanders currently boast 16 players who have recorded at least 10 points so far.
All of that kept the Orange and Blue one point up on Pittsburgh for the division lead, leap-frogged the club over the Lightning into first place in the Eastern Conference, and might have finally erased any lingering notions of an eventual second-half nose dive. Oh yeah, and the Islanders could be the first team in the East to 30 wins if they are on the correct side of the scoreboard again, in Friday's showdown with the Pens at Uniondale.
It's far and away a season beyond all expectations for a club some pundits picked to only make the playoffs, and it's a wildly successful one already for a team poised to bid farewell to the place it has called home for the last 42 years.
At the midway point of 2014-15, the team once ridiculed for their Etch-a- Sketch coaching and GM rotations along with their now retro-cool Gorton's Fisherman logo, has vaulted into the level of the all-time greats.
New York hit the halfway mark tied with Tampa Bay -- the Atlantic Division leaders -- with the most wins in the Eastern Conference at 27. Their 27-13-1 record stands as the franchise's second-best mark at the middle of any season with only the 1978-79 Patrick Division and Clarence Campbell Bowl winners ranking higher at 28 victories, and their 55 points marks the most accumulated since the 1981-82 squad under Al Arbour collected the same amount.
Their opponents, the Broadway Blueshirts, were no slouches, either. Heading into the opening faceoff, Alain Vigneault's charges were riding a 13-1-0 streak, their best run of success since going unbeaten in 15 games (14-0-1) during the middle portion of the 1972-73 campaign, and one which vaulted them from the dregs of the division into prime playoff positioning, a full 11 points ahead of idle Philadelphia.
In the end, the Islanders laid waste to any outcome as a result of that momentum, winning for the fifth time in their last six trips to the World's Most Famous Arena -- a string of success not found in the Islander history books since February of 2000 through November of 2002.
A team once best known for its prowess in the playoffs beyond regulation has a bright young hero doing the same thing in the regular season.
Tavares picked up his seventh career OT marker in last Friday night's 3-2 win against the Devils in Newark, extending his franchise record. Even though a five-minute extra session was only implemented league-wide at the end of the club's dynastic run in 1983, that's something that Messrs. Bossy, Trottier, Gillies, Sutter, Goring, Potvin, Tonelli or Nystrom never came close to achieving during their distinguished careers.
The Islanders' march toward a franchise-record in victories (54, 1981-82) has been aided by an incredible 11-1 record so far in games decided beyond the first 60 minutes of play. That's certainly worthy of confidence, to know you can outlast an opponent before sending them home unhappy.
Both New York franchises renew hostilities three more times before the end of the regular season: Jan. 27, Feb. 16 and Mar. 10, all on Long Island. Even if the Rangers took a number and are able to recall how the Islanders beat them at home twice and by a combined 9-3 count already, will it matter? Capuano's kids are 15-9-1 on the road but are an equally-impressive 14-4-0 on home ice. Only Tampa (16) and Toronto (15) have produced more positive results in their respective arenas among fellow conference clubs.
There will be garment rending and gnashing of teeth by die-hards once the Islanders leave the comfort of the Mausoleum and the suburbs for the flash of the Barclays Center and the lure of street cred in Brooklyn at the end of the season. Until then, the Islanders seem bent on giving their fans one last shot at puffing out their collective chests to claim local bragging rights which were theirs for a solid decade from the mid 1970s through the mid 1980s -- a feeling which is long overdue both on and off the ice.