Down the Stretch, Will Islanders Come Up Big?
By Alan Hahn
February 2, 2004
After finishing off the month of January with a 6-5-3-1 record that
includes a 5-1-2-1 mark in the final nine games of the month,
February's challenging schedule begins tomorrow against the dynamic
Vancouver Canucks at Nassau Coliseum. Then there is just one more
game - Thursday at seventh-place Montreal - before the All-Star break
On the other side of that break is a stretch run for a third
consecutive playoff berth, which the franchise hasn't done since 1987-
88, the last year of the 14-season playoff run.
"Coming into the end of the season, every team is going to be a lot
better," said rookie Trent Hunter, who has four goals and 10 points
with a plus-6 rating in the past nine games. "You really have to
focus and bear down and build on every win."
"Building" is the key word in February. The Islanders have a five-
point lead over the ninth-place Buffalo Sabres, who lead a cluster of
chasing teams that includes the Rangers (eight back). The Islanders
play the Rangers and Sabres twice each this month. They've already
concluded the season series against 10th-place Atlanta.
The new month and the All-Star break also are signs that the NHL's
trade rumor mill will go into high gear until the March 9 deadline.
The Islanders might be active, but it isn't likely.
They'll already be adding top-level players when injured forwards
Alexei Yashin and Mark Parrish return on the other side of the All-
Star break. They also might start seeing more from veteran Cliff
Ronning, who was signed as a free agent Jan. 9.
Ronning said he is just starting to shake off the expected soreness
that comes during the first few weeks of playing after sitting out
half a season.
"The last three games I've played without pain and it's been kind of
fun," said the crafty 38-year-old forward, who had experienced hip
flexor and hamstring soreness.
Ronning took some teasing because Saturday's 4-2 win over the Florida
Panthers "was the first game I didn't have to put heat all over my
Coach Steve Stirling noticed the jump in Ronning's step during the
game and moved him to a line with Jason Blake and Oleg Kvasha.
Ronning earned an assist on Blake's winning goal in the third period.
"He's been pretty good," Stirling said of Ronning. "He's been playing
himself into shape, and whenever he's got it going, he always tells
me ... So when he told me he felt good, and I saw a couple of shifts
where he looked good, it was time to give him more ice time."
Radio: ESPN (1050)