- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 31, 2002

The once-proud New York Islanders were a laughingstock. Seven straight seasons out of the playoffs. Six last-place finishes. And don't even mention the ugly uniforms with the fisherman's logo they wore a couple of years ago.
Last season the Islanders hit bottom. Their league-low 52 points were their fewest since their 1972-73 debut. Nassau Coliseum, home to four straight Stanley Cup champions from 1980 to 1983, was dark, drab and deserted. That was the situation that 37-year-old first-year coach Peter Laviolette inherited this season.
"Most years we knew in training camp that we were in for a long season," said center Claude Lapointe, who along with defenseman Kenny Jonsson are the only players left from the 1996-97 Islanders. "It wasn't fun playing here. A lot of guys came and went. I just tried to make the best of it. When Peter was so positive in his speech the first day of training camp, I turned to Kenny and said, `This is it. This is going to be a good year.'"
It didn't hurt Laviolette's cause that second-year owners Charles Wang and Sanjay Kumar allowed veteran general manager Mike Milbury to obtain three high-priced players, forwards Alexei Yashin and Michael Peca and goalie Chris Osgood, during the offseason.
Yashin, a 40-goal scorer in his final two seasons in Ottawa, was the big weapon that New York had lacked. Osgood, a two-time Cup winner with Detroit, solved the Islanders' long-standing goalie woes. Former Buffalo captain Peca provided the determination and grit that had helped the Sabres to the 1998 conference finals and the 1999 Cup finals.
"It starts with convincing guys that if we're down in a game that we can come back and win, or if we're up one goal going into the third period that we have the ability to hold onto the lead," captain Peca said. "You start building confidence, you start piling up the wins and you go from there."
The Islanders began with four road games and won them all en route to a dazzling 11-1-1-1 start. Their subsequent 0-4-1 slump not only didn't faze them but was followed by a 4-0 spurt.
The Islanders seemingly jeopardized their playoff hopes with a 3-6-0-1 slide to open March but were on a 4-1 tear and within seven points of clinching a playoff spot with nine games left before last night's date at MCI Center. And with 81 points, the Islanders were on pace for their most since their 1984 Cup finalists.
"People have been wondering all year when our bubble was going to burst," Laviolette said. "Sometimes I have felt like standing on a desk and yelling that it wasn't going to happen. I hate to say we've achieved much, because the best part of the year is coming up. We've been tested a lot. We're ready for the playoffs."
Yashin (31), linemate Mark Parrish (career-high 30), Peca (23, as part of his career-high 58 points) and Mariusz Czerkawski (20) have given the Islanders a quartet of 20-goal scorers for the first time in eight years. Osgood has been solid. Adrian AuCoin, obtained from Tampa Bay on the cheap, has developed into a top defenseman. Through Friday, New York had scored a league-high 17 shorthanded goals, and its power-play ranked eighth.
The fans have responded, selling out the Coliseum 18 times in 37 games. On average, the 30-year-old building is 89 percent full, close to what it was during the glory days.
"For me, there's a lot more satisfaction and joy in helping turn something around than going to a situation where the winning tradition was established," Peca said. "It has been a great year. Making the playoffs is a good first step for this organization to move forward to becoming a perennial playoff team again and challenging for the Cup."


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