The Ottawa Senators and their more corporate-friendly Andrew Hammond "hamburglar" story have stolen the "team on massive tear to the playoffs" headlines of late, but out West a strong team that should've been good all along has pulled of an equally impressive surge: Sunk by Islanders 2008-13-esque goaltending, the Minnesota Wild plucked reclamation project Devan Dubnyk off Arizona's tank entrails, started him for 31 consecutive games (and counting), and have ridden him to a 23-6-1 record over that time.
Unlike Hammond, Dubnyk's history at least hinted that some version of NHL-caliber play was possible -- and thus appears a little more sustainable.
For a second consecutive season, Wild coach Mike Yeo survived (unfounded) mid-season talk of an impending firing. Where once the Wild looked like a prime blown expectations candidate in the hyper-competitive Central, now they are more than likely to make the playoffs and scare whoever draws them in the first round.
They breeze into Nassau Coliseum tonight after Leaf-ing through a narrow 2-1 win in Toronto last night, one where Dubnyk faced 17 shots in the third period alone.
They bring with them a few figures from recent Islanders history.
The Ones Who Walk Away
After a slow start under his new contract with the Wild -- complete with all the familiar "he doesn't look like he's trying out there" fan critiques -- Thomas Vanek comes in on an eight-game point streak, but offering the usual "underwhelming" feeling. Always good for honest quotes during his brief Isles tenure, today he offered a really odd one: The pending move to Brooklyn was a deterrent in his consideration to re-sign with the Isles.
The Isles, of course, should be grateful he turned them down. That money has been better spent elsewhere, making the blueline upgrades and forward depth that has made this season such a good one (though sadly one of those pieces, Mikhail Grabovski, remains out indefinitely after his second concussion of the season).
Nino Niederreiter's agent has emailed us* to announce that he is also returning with the Wild and expects the finest service and accoutrements from staff.
*That might not be true.
Meanwhile Jared Spurgeon, who never really got a chance from the Isles, is back to health and back in the lineup where he logs just under 23 minutes per game, including significant time on both special teams. Of the three "ones who got away" in the Wild lineup, he's the one that smarts: Of the many small but puck-moving defensemen drafted in that era, Mark Katic is in Europe, Aaron Ness is captaining Bridgeport, Matt Donovan is kept in pressbox storage, but Spurgeon is a key cog with the Wild.
Not that the Isles were alone in that evaluation: Spurgeon was passed over by everyone when he re-entered the draft, and only won a contract after a training camp tryout with the Wild. Guess you had to be there.
- Dubnyk starts the road back-to-back because the Wild have already lived life with their other goalies, and it terrified them. (If Dubnyk keeps this up he will break the franchise record for consecutive starts held by Dwayne Roloson, another Isles-Wild connection who saved a team -- the 2006 Oilers -- via mid-season trade.)
- Jaroslav Halak starts for the Isles, coming off his fifth shutout of the season in New Jersey the other night.
- Calvin de Haan is back in the lineup, in Brian Strait's place, after a one-game spin on the scratch wheel.
- The Isles forwards remain the same, with Michael Grabner remaining in the pressbox.
- The Wild are without penalty killer Kyle Brodziak, evidently hurt in a fight with Dion Phaneuf. (Phaneuf actually fought after targeting smaller players?! How in the hell did they persuade him to do that?)
REAL NHL Coach
"One area we definitely have to be better is with the puck. We didn’t manage the puck very well. We weren’t strong enough on it."
>>Mike Yeo on last night's win in Toronto, sounding like every NHL coach everywhere
When these teams met in December, it became the Islanders' second narrative-friendly blown 3-0 lead in a row. Few wanted to hear it at the time (and probably not now either), but the incidents happened against two really good Central teams: The Blues, and the Wild. Not so much collapse as the way hockey against good teams sometimes goes. Further, they came with the Isles missing key defensemen and, in the Minnesota game's, Chad Johnson in net.
That game had it all: Sketchy reffing all around (Marco Scandella's tomahawk slash on John Tavares was gently penalized, then erased by a poor goalie interference call on Brock Nelson), a winning goal by Niederreiter as Nelson fell into Johnson, and an incident that might bring some sort of frontier justice to tonight's game. That was the game where Matt Martin checked Keith Ballard, with Ballard turning away and ending up knocked out and convulsing on the ice.
Yeo was fuming. Vanek called it an unnecessary hit. Ballard hasn't played since. The refs called nothing and the league's Department of Player Safety agreed. But Martin may have visitors tonight.
Pat LaFontaine Night
Far more significant than those ex-Isles' returns and the Wild's last visit to a building that is more than twice as old as that franchise, is Pat LaFontaine's return to the Coliseum. He gets the pre-game tribute as the Isles close the building out honoring various stars from their history.
LaFontaine had a couple of high-profile divorces from the team, so it's good to see him back, and it's good to have people realize that you only live once, so most grudges are pointless.
16 spoke about them doing some well in the Coli's final season:
"It's bittersweet," said LaFontaine, who scored 287 goals for the Islanders from 1984-1991. "It's great to see them playing so well, it's great that they're not going too far. You would love to duplicate this and have it for 10 more years exactly the way things are going. I'm just happy [they won't be] too far away so the diehard fans can still go and support them. But I think it's like anything else … you don't understand what they meant and how much they meant until they're not here."
Leave your First Islanders Goal picks here. Don't choose Donovan.