For two games that have no playoff implications for the Islanders, this home-and-home with the Rangers to close out the season has a surprising and worthwhile amount of buzz for the Long Island faithful.
First off, we have the NHL debut of defenseman Jack Hillen, straight from being eliminated from the NCAA tournament as a member of the WCHA's Colorado College Tigers.
Unlike Kyle Okposo, Hillen has four years of college hockey under his breezers. Also unlike Okposo, Hillen was an undrafted free agent, so he has none of that pesky first-round draft choice pedigree stuff to live up to.
What he does come with is a track record of continuous improvement that was appealing enough to spark a competition for his services. When I found out that Hillen signed with the Isles, I was immediately pleased that the team added a solid prospect in an area where depth is lacking.
It's awfully funny how surprising news like this can make you react as you begin to gather facts about the player. Here's a sample of my reactions.
Fact: An offensive-minded defenseman.
Reaction: Excellent! They are in desperate need of a power-play quarterback!
Fact: Doesn't like to take slap shots from the point on the power play.
Reaction: What?! *confusion* You can't run the power play without a slap shot!
Fact: Has a knack for getting his wrist shot through from the point.
Reaction: Phew. I'll take it. I've seen enough point shots not get anywhere near the net this year.
Fact: Highest scoring defenseman in Division I this year.
Reaction: Excellent! I think I'm currently the highest scoring defenseman on the Isles. Or maybe it's Schuerlein.
Fact: Scored 37 points on six goals and 31 assists this year.
Reaction: Hmm...that certainly demonstrates a knack for creating offense, but only six goals? Wouldn't the dominant offensive defenseman in the NCAA put a few more pucks in the net? That's what we're looking for. Oh, yeah, he doesn't have a cannon. On the other hand, six goals in 41 games projects to 12 over an NHL-length season. Not quite Mike Green numbers, but at least we're in the ballpark. And if he really is as good of a puck mover as they say he is...
And more of that.
But it's at this point that I rein it in and say: He's only 22. The idea that he'll step in next year and lead the power play is pie-in-the-sky thinking. Let's just be excited about getting a look for two games.
The Islanders did a good job locating a needed asset and securing it. I'm just looking forward to watching what the future may bring. In April 2008 (and at lots of other times, unfortunately), that's what it means to be an Islanders fan.
The other sources of buzz? Finishing the season with back-to-backs against the rival Rangers still means something even if the Islanders only have pride to play for.
At stake? Bragging rights to end the season and the Metro Ice Challenge. Perhaps one day the Metro Ice Challenge will equal the Mayor's Trophy game in luster. Then again, that one went on a good 10 years after anyone stopped caring about it. At least this one involves games that actually count.
If a sponsorship must be involved, maybe next year it can be the Bloomberg Mayor's Metro Ice Challenge. Of course, this competition involves only one team that plays in New York City. Foiled. That's what happens sometimes when you write out loud.
Finally there is the question of where the Isles will finish in the standings and how much of a shot they will have at the No. 1 pick in the draft. I wonder how the top prospects of the past two years feel knowing that this year's draft lottery is getting the Crosby treatment, while theirs was broadcast to the world using one of those horns from the Ricola commercials.
It's not in my nature to root for the Islanders to lose. I wish they were going into this home-and-home with a more accomplished lineup. But I am not above rooting for the teams the Islanders are jockeying for position with to win, just in case the Isles do come out with a couple of victories themselves.