Sunday, October 4, 2009

Tavares leading Isles out of the darkness

There were many things to take away from the Islanders' home opener against the Penguins Saturday night, but chief among them was this -- the worst is over.

It couldn't get much worse last season. The Isles finished with the fewest points in the NHL, and had so many injuries it was almost impossible to gauge the development of their young players or the success of first-year coach Scott Gordon's system.

That failure, however, yielded the No. 1 overall draft pick, and the Islanders selected John Tavares. And while the rookie center scored a goal and an assist in his debut, the points were almost secondary to the other thing he delivered in spades -- hope.

The full house at Nassau Coliseum came to see a savior, and they were not disappointed. But they got much more. The Islanders outplayed the defending Stanley Cup champions for much of the game, and if victories were awarded solely on effort, the Isles would have notched one in the win column.

Mark Streit scored on a 5-on-3 power play, rifling the puck in off a feed down low from Trent Hunter, with Tavares getting the secondary assist. Then Tavares scored the first of his career with a quick backhander on the power play. Hunter scored the Isles' third goal, creating some space for himself before converting a sweet backhand pass from Josh Bailey.

The Penguins, however, are champs for a reason, and the great teams often enjoy the good bounce. Two of the Pittsburgh goals went in off the stick shaft or skate of an Islander. Otherwise, Dwayne Roloson made those of us born in the 60s proud by turning in a strong effort.

Tavares was paired with training camp feel-good story Matt Moulson and Kyle Okposo, and that line looked downright dangerous -- a welcome sight for fans desperate for some offensive firepower.

Brendan Witt leveled Ruslan Fedotenko, leading to the 5-on-3 power play, which almost made up for the fact that he forgot that it was Sidney Effing Crosby streaking down the right wing for Pittsburgh's first goal.

You'd think that after such a dismal season, to earn a point against the champs in the opener would be satisfying, and to some degree it was. But the effort was so strong, you couldn't help but be disappointed.

Islanders fans can only hope the team felt the same way and has no regard for moral victories.

I have to admit, when the Islanders didn't go out and get any free agent help this past offseason beyond the two goalies, I was disappointed. After Saturday's game, I'm glad they didn't. I want to see how this group develops. I want to see them struggle and learn how to win. I want to go along for that ride.

Of course, the Isles could get blown out in game two and all the optimism of the opener could get swept away, but I can't shake the feeling that this is going to be a very interesting -- and dare I say, enjoyable -- season.

The dark days are behind us.

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