By Steve Silverman
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Just how good are these New York Islanders?
They certainly garnered their share of attention when Garth Snow made a couple of preseason trades that brought in veteran Stanley Cup winning defensemen in Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy.
Those two have since helped the Islanders get off to a nice start.
But we are well past the start. When the NHL season hits Thanksgiving and teams have played close to two dozen games, most teams have jelled.
The good teams will continue to win on a regular basis and the bad teams will continue to struggle. There are exceptions, of course, but the top teams have started to separate themselves from the non-contenders.
The Islanders are tied for first place in the Metropolitan Division with the Pittsburgh Penguins. They swept a two-game series from Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin & Co. last weekend, sending a loud-and-clear message to one of the NHL's top glamour teams.
"We can play any game you want, and we can beat you. Keep trying, but we are not going away."
The Islanders may be as good as the best teams in the NHL's Eastern Conference. With the way they have performed to this point, they have a chance to win the division and earn one of the top two seeds in the playoff race. They will have a chance to make a memorable playoff run.
They have the right kind of talent and psychological makeup. John Tavares is willing to show what he can do and he doesn't care who is in the opposite uniform. While he may struggle in the faceoff department (49.4 percent), he is a brilliant offensive player who can score and set up his teammates with relative ease. He is also improving on the defensive side, getting better every time out.
Kyle Okposo is a powerful right wing who has the physical tools to sustain success, but he is also on the same mental and emotional level with Tavares. They each know what the other is going to do on the ice and this 1-2 punch will give the Islanders a chance when they get to the playoffs.
Players like Frans Nielsen, Brock Nelson and Ryan Strome are all solid complementary players. They are not necessarily superstars or great players, but they play the system that head coach Jack Capuano wants, and it has led to wins.
Boychuk and Leddy are more than newcomers who gave the Islanders a lift. They are mainstays who have been through the wars. Both men have gigantic (if unspoken) chips on their shoulders against their former teams for treating them like disposable commodities.
Boychuk (2 goals, 11 assists, plus-7) and Leddy (5 goals, 4 assists, plus-8) are not satisfied that their team has gotten off to a good start. They are looking to be part of a strong playoff team, and that means playing at their best over an 82-game regular season.
They will not mail it in at any point, and that sets an example for Travis Hamonic, Calvin de Haan, Thomas Hickey and Lubomir Visnovsky. The defense was this team's weak spot for years as the Islanders would regularly play well only to see careless play by the defense give games away. That's no longer the case.
From this point forward, Islanders fans should measure their team against Pittsburgh, the Rangers, Montreal, Tampa Bay and Boston. These are the teams that will have the ability to make statements during the playoffs. The biggest issues for the Islanders could come from the Rangers and the Bruins.
The Rangers have not played with any consistency this season, but they have a pair of signature 5-0 wins over Montreal and Pittsburgh. That means they have the ability to rise to the occasion. Rick Nash is finally playing like a Broadway star, and they have the "King." Henrik Lundqvist remains, in this columnist's opinion, the best goalie in the sport.
The Bruins appear to be down after getting to the Stanley Cup Final in 2013 and winning the President's Trophy last season. But this team has been battered and bruised by injuries – most notably to Zdeno Chara and David Krejci – yet it is still hanging in. When Claude Julien's team is healthy, it will be formidable.
But the Islanders can compete with all of these teams. They are no longer just trying to get into the club.
They are a formidable opponent for any of the top Eastern Conference teams, and they are showing it on an nightly basis.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @ProFootballBoy
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