A maturing group of youngsters has the New York Islanders in the playoff mix while a handful of experienced players might be enough to give the team a successful final push.
Veteran right-winger Brad Boyes, who joined the Islanders as a free agent last July 1, has witnessed much growth in the National Hockey League team, led by his linemates John Tavares and Matt Moulson.
Brad Boyes seeking multi-year deal
Brad Boyes doesn’t want to be kicked off the Island.
The impending unrestricted free agent has been a good fit in his first season with the New York Islanders, recording 31 points in 41 games skating alongside first-line forwards John Tavares and Matt Moulson.
Contract talks between team management and Boyes’s agent Pat Brisson have cooled recently as both sides concentrate on New York’s bid for a playoff spot.
The 21-16-4 Islanders are alone in seventh in the NHL’s Eastern Conference following Thursday’s 2-1 win at Boston, their highest standing this late in the season since they last appeared in the Stanley Cup playoffs in 2007.
"I enjoy it here, I like where the team is going and I’m interested in staying," said Boyes, who signed a one-year, $1-million US contract as a free agent last July. Last season, the 30-year-old right-winger made $4 million playing for Buffalo.
Boyes, who is seeking a multi-year deal, should be in for a raise as he has been a big part of an Islanders power play that ranks ninth in the 30-team league. Eleven of his 23 assists this season have come with the man-advantage.
The Mississauga, Ont., native scored 43 goals in the 2007-08 season for St. Louis and 33 goals the following campaign, but has since changed his role and become more of a playmaker for his goal-scoring linemates.
"I had to realize your role does change a bit depending on who you’re playing with and it’s been good. I’ve enjoyed it," he said. "Tavares has  goals and Moulson scores 30 every year. Those guys are going to need somebody to give them the puck. I have no problem giving it to them because those are guys that are going to score.
"I don’t think we’re that far off [to being a Cup contender] and that’s why I’d like to be part of it," said Boyes. "We’re at the bottom [of the pack] as far as payroll [with $35.3 million committed to 14 players for next season when the salary cap is $64.3 million] so we’ve got lots of room to get the right guys in."
— Doug Harrison, CBCSports.ca
Earlier in the season, Boyes said the team found ways to give up leads and lose, whether it was pucks finding the back of the net off skates or gloves or allowing goals on the final shift of games.
But New York has since tightened its play and not allowed more than two goals in regulation in the past 10 outings while outscoring the opposition 13-4 in the third period during that stretch.
"Now, we’re getting that big save [from goalie Evgeni Nabokov] when we need it, the big goal when we need it and we’re starting to show our depth," Boyes, 30, said in a phone interview ahead of Thursday’s 2-1 win in Boston. "The young guys are learning how to play with a lead and guys that have lost here for a while are learing how to [win]."
New York is seventh in the Eastern Conference with a 21-16-4 record, two points ahead of the No. 8 New York Rangers (20-16-4). Next is Winnipeg with 44 points and then New Jersey with 40.
The Islanders haven’t been this high in the standings with less than 10 games left in the regular season since they last secured a post-season berth in 2007 when Buffalo ousted them in Game 5 of a best-of-seven conference quarter-final.
The line of Tavares-Moulson-Boyes is 1-2-3 in team scoring and prior to Thursday's game responsible for 38 per cent, or 45, of the team’s 117 goals. But the biggest mistake the Islanders’ remaining opponents could make is assuming they’re a one-line team.
Right-winger Colin McDonald’s first two-goal game in the NHL on March 28 lifted New York to a 4-3 win over Philadelphia. Five nights later, forwards Frans Neilsen and Anders Lee found the back of the net against Winnipeg. And this week, forwards Casey Cizikas and Michael Grabner have scored while Josh Bailey notched both Islanders goals Thursday.
"That’s what you need, four [forward] lines [contributing]. We need to have four lines to be successful," said Boyes, who has 31 points in 40 games, including eight goals to match last season’s 65-game output with Buffalo. "Our [defence] is throwing pucks on net and getting a few goals for us, but we’re definitely a team that needs everybody [working] to win."
Nabokov, who tops all Islanders players with 80 games of playoff experience, entered Thursday one victory shy of the league lead with 19 and was 6-1-1 with a .924 save percentage since March 24. On the season, he boasts a 2.59 goals-against average and .908 save percentage.
"When you know you’ve got a goalie that’s giving you the save you need or a chance to win," Boyes said, "it’s a lot easier to play, a lot easier to take [risks on the ice] and push for that offence if that’s what we’re looking for.
"[Nabokov’s] resume is what it is [40 playoff wins, seven shutouts, 2.29 GAA]. He’s not the loudest guy but vocal enough to get his message across to everybody and there’s no panic [amongst the team].
"For the most part we’re not getting outworked," continued Boyes, "so as long as we play a little smarter we’re able to win games that we’re in."
Head coach Jack Capuano along with his assistants Doug Weight and Brent Thompson have also contributed to New York’s success, Boyes said, by believing in the players and holding them accountable.
But it’s the veteran presence of defencemen Lubomir Visnovsky and Mark Streit along with forward Marty Reasoner, Nabokov and Boyes that will keep the young players composed in tightly contested games down the stretch.
"The times I’ve got into the playoffs have been from late-season pushes," said Boyes, a member of the 2008-09 St. Louis Blues, whose NHL-best 25-9-7 mark in the second half of the season lifted them from last place in the West to their first playoff appearance in five years.
"To help out the young players is imperative, making sure they understand what it’s really going to take because it’s the first time for a lot of them to be in a race like this."