Chris Osgood is the goalie for the hottest team in the NHL, but he
still puts his pants on one leg at a time. The big news last week
was that those pants were the correct shade of New York Islanders
blue. The fashionistas at league headquarters had telephoned four
times since the season began to insist that Osgood abandon his
old Detroit Red Wings red hockey pants, and New York general
manager Mike Milbury accepted that nagging with good humor. "If
they have the time to worry about that," says Milbury, "the
league is in really good shape."
The autumnal riot of colors should have been welcomed for a team
whose color scheme might as well have included dishwater gray,
but the NHL has rules governing uniforms, and justice isn't
color-blind. Osgood, as superstitious as the next goalie, was
reluctant to change a winning combination. After five days of
breaking in his Islander-blue pants at practice, however, he
unveiled them in a comeback 3-2 overtime road win against the
Carolina Hurricanes last Friday that left New York one shy of the
NHL record for most victories away from home to start the season
Following seven bleak, postseason-less years that included five
ownership groups, eight coaches and two years of wearing those
jerseys with the awful fisherman logo, in which they looked and
played like Mrs. Paul, the Islanders have been readmitted to
proper hockey society. Rising from the ashes of a last-place
finish last season (21-51-7-3), the Islanders, as of Sunday, were
the only team not to have lost in regulation and were 14.5
seconds from a perfect record. After going 1-42-1 when trailing
after two periods in 2000-01, they were 2-0-1 under those
circumstances this season and 8-0-1-1 overall. After winning only
nine road games last year, they had won six this season. After
leading the league in no category except chaos last season, they
had the top goal scorer in right wing Mark Parrish, whose 10
goals matched the output of marquee stars Pavel Bure, Mario
Lemieux, Teemu Selanne, Paul Kariya, Theo Fleury and Keith
"Our expectations for ourselves are higher than anyone else's,"
Parrish said on the flight to New York after assisting on the
winning goal by screening Hurricanes defenseman Glen Wesley on a
face-off and kicking the puck to Mariusz Czerkawski, the kind of
play winning teams execute. "Our goal is to be a powerhouse and
to make a run at the Stanley Cup."
That matter-of-fact confidence was as startling as the smiles in
the dressing room on a team that used to be so joyless that most
veterans would have loved being voted off the Island. The Stanley
Cup is always a popular topic on Long Island, but usually it's
discussed in the past tense, dredged up whenever a stalwart from
the early-1980s dynasty returns to have his number retired.
That's what Bryan Trottier did on Oct. 20, with a raucous crowd
cheering the old center and finding time to heckle Milbury.
"Those weren't boos," says Milbury, who has been either the coach
or general manager of the franchise since July 1995. "I know
booing when I hear it."
Although he has been chastened enough to avoid taking premature
bows, Milbury was reasonably certain that his trades in June for
centers Michael Peca and Alexei Yashin and the September waiver
gift of Osgood--a leader, a scorer and a No. 1 goalie, all of whom
had played on reasonably successful teams--would put the Islanders
on the road to respectability. New York blew past the
respectability exit a mile ago and is pedal-to-the-metal to
someplace interesting. The owners, Charles Wang and Sanjay Kumar,
committed more than $115 million to those three players,
including an astonishing $87.5 million, 10-year deal for Yashin,
whose periodic contract squabbles in Ottawa suggest that
commitment is not his forte. The deal, which raised NHL
commissioner Gary Bettman's eyebrows, was more startling when you
consider that the Islanders really wanted estranged Boston Bruins
center Jason Allison.
Milbury's plan was to have the scoring center--who turned out to
be Yashin--be a complementary player to Peca, who sat out last
year in a contract dispute with the Buffalo Sabres. Peca, who was
obtained for 20-year-old forwards Tim Connolly and Taylor Pyatt,
signed with New York for $20 million over five years and was
precisely the buffer Yashin needed. "Alex is an elite player, but
the stronger the support group is around him, the stronger he's
going to be," Peca says. "Ottawa had talented players, but as a
group they weren't too strong [in the postseason]. They leaned on
Alex. Here everyone can lean on each other."
The investment in Osgood--he makes $3.75 million this season and
will earn $4 million in 2002-03--has been money well spent.
Islanders goaltending has been an irritant for almost a decade
because they have tried to get by with netminders who weren't as
good as they had been elsewhere (Ron Hextall, Felix Potvin and
John Vanbiesbrouck) or who weren't as good as they would turn out
to be elsewhere (Tommy Salo with the Edmonton Oilers and Roberto
Luongo with the Florida Panthers).
Last season Milbury tried to force-feed 19-year-old Rick
DiPietro, who has exceptional but raw skills and whose every save
looks like a magician pulling a rabbit out of his hat. DiPietro,
the No. 1 pick in the 2000 draft, would still be on Long Island,
sharing time with veteran Garth Snow, instead of in the minors,
if Detroit had not been caught in a bind.
Over the summer the Red Wings had acquired six-time Vezina Trophy
winner Dominik Hasek from the Sabres and could not afford to keep
a big-ticket caddie to play 20 games. When they couldn't deal
Osgood (teams didn't want to trade players plus pick up his
sizable contract), the Wings exposed him in the waiver draft, the
customary preserve of checking forwards and seventh defensemen,
not a 28-year-old whose winning percentage ranks second to Ken
Dryden's among goalies with at least 225 victories. Milbury
scurried to make a trade or two that would free payroll space for
Osgood until Wang, who has co-owned the team for 18 months, told
him to grab Osgood and damn the expense. The move pushed the
payroll to $36 million, more than double the shoestring budget of
last season but only into the midrange of NHL teams.
Osgood might have dressed like a peacock, but he is modest and
guarded, a defense mechanism from his days in Detroit, where his
two Stanley Cups never seemed enough. For all the jibes about the
long-distance goals that eluded him in the 1998 playoffs, he is a
superb second-shot netminder. He has been almost immaculate in
New York, with a .937 save percentage and two shutouts. Osgood
has also kept the Islanders in games after shaky starts. "The
mark of a good team is how it reacts when things aren't going in
its favor," Osgood says. "When we gave up that late goal to
Detroit and wound up losing in overtime [on Oct. 13, when Luc
Robitaille scored with 9.4 seconds left in regulation and Steve
Yzerman scored the winner], we came back to play probably our
best game the next time out [a 4-0 win in Carolina]."
The Islanders showed their newfound resiliency in Carolina last
Friday after they were penalized--and scored against on the
ensuing power play--for starting an illegal lineup on the opening
face-off, a gaffe that would have been a colossal embarrassment
for rookie coach Peter Laviolette had he not done the perfect
thing after the first period: He told the team he had made a
mistake. ("Great," Peca said with a smile after the game. "More
money in the fine pool.") Laviolette, who had circled defenseman
Roman Hamrlik as a starter on his lineup sheet but had sent out
Kenny Jonsson for the opening face-off, admitted the mistake to
the media after the game and said it would never happen again,
disarming the situation with a directness that has marked his
first 10 games.
At 36 he is the league's second-youngest coach, a bristling man
who seems in a hurry to get someplace. The Islanders play with
the same urgency, forechecking hard, attacking on the penalty
kill. "In our first meeting in training camp he told us not to
think about fighting for a playoff spot but about winning a
championship," says center Claude Lapointe, who in 10 NHL seasons
has played in only 13 postseason games, none in his five years in
New York. "I elbowed Kenny Jonsson next to me and said, 'This is
Laviolette was not an obvious choice to coach New York, a man
with a thin portfolio that consisted of three good minor league
seasons (1997-98 through '99-00) behind the bench and one bumpy
year in Boston (2000-01) working for coach Mike Keenan. In fact
Keenan, who was fired after last season, intimated that
Laviolette, on instructions from general manager Mike O'Connell,
was undermining him by telling players to use a different
forechecking system than the one Keenan wanted. When Laviolette
was asked about that at dinner last week, he took a moment to
gather himself by saying jokingly to assistant coach Jacques
Laperriere, "More wine, Lappy?" Then he steadied his gaze and
answered, "Management and me being against Mike is not true. He
had a system. I reemphasized that system. If you're asking if I
undermined him at the behest of management, I didn't."
Even if memories of the past seven years of Islanders misery have
vanished, in the short term the team is riding a streaking goalie
and a hot scorer who's never had more than 26 goals in an NHL
season and in the long-term is betting on an $87.5 million player
who has six goals in 26 playoff games. Wherever the colorful ride
takes them, though, the scenery will be better. As Wang told the
Nassau Coliseum crowd during the Trottier ceremony, these are
"your first-place New York Islanders."
Right now they wear the pants in the NHL.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY LOU CAPOZZOLA ON THE MARK Parrish (37) leads the NHL with 10 goals and says the Islanders are ready to challenge for the Cup.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY LOU CAPOZZOLA MONEY WELL SPENT Since last season the revamped Islanders committed more than $115 million to Peca (27), Yashin and Osgood.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY LOU CAPOZZOLA KEEPING FOCUS Osgood, fighting through a screen by San Jose's Vincent Damphousse, has given the Islanders relief from their net woes.
The Islanders, whose 52 points last season were worst in the
league, already had 18 through Sunday. Here are the teams that
had the biggest point increases after finishing with the league's
worst record, since the NHL expanded for the 1967-68 season.
YEAR SEASON'S POINTS SEASON
TEAM POINTS POINTS INCREASE RESULT
San Jose Sharks 82 24 58 Lost conference
Winnipeg Jets 80 32 48 Lost division
Detroit Red Wings 78 40 38 Lost conference
Detroit Red Wings 78 41 37 Lost league
Ottawa Senators 77 41 36 Lost conference
Osgood's winning percentage ranks second in NHL history behind
Ken Dryden's for goaltenders with at least 225 victories.