If wouldn’t be surprising if Mariusz Czerkawski had Thursday’s game at Montreal circled on his calendar.
Czerkawski looks to continue his fast start against his former team when the Islanders put a four-game unbeaten streak on the line against the Canadiens.
After five seasons with the Islanders that included 87 goals in his final three years, Czerkawski was traded to Montreal on June 22, 2002 for forward Arron Asham. The former All-Star never got comfortable with the Canadiens, scoring just five goals in 43 games and was benched before finishing the season in the minors.
The Islanders, in need of a scoring winger, took a chance on their former player and signed Czerkawski as a free agent in July. That move looks like one of the league’s best offseason transactions because Czerkawski leads the team with five goals and six points in five games.
Czerkawski scored twice Monday in a 5-2 victory over visiting Toronto, helping the Islanders improve to 3-0-1 since a season-opening 6-1 loss at Washington.
Czerkawski credits the defensive system installed by first-year coach Steve Stirling for the team’s success.
“We don’t waste as much energy trying to figure out where to go or who to cover,” Czerkawski said. “You have to use your head, but we’re not running around.”
Defenseman Kenny Jonsson also credits Stirling’s system.
“We’re showing that if we work as five-man units, we’re a tough team to beat,” Jonsson said. “This system gives us a chance to win every game. We have a commitment to each other, and we have to play the same style, no matter what the score is.”
Another reason for New York’s strong start has been the play of goaltender Rick DiPietro, who is 2-0-1 while allowing three goals on 68 shots. Veteran Garth Snow was in net against Toronto, so Stirling likely will go back to DiPietro on Thursday.
Montreal, another team benefitting from a new defensive system, is coming off Monday’s 2-1 victory over Detroit.
Backup Mathieu Garon stopped 18 shots in a rare start, and Steve Begin and Richard Zednik scored second-period goals for the Canadiens, who have allowed one goal or fewer in each of the last five games.
“The first half of the game the hardest thing was to stay sharp because I hardly had any shots,” Garon said. “If we keep playing like that defensively a lot of teams will have problems with our system.”
Montreal has outscored opponents 15-4 since a season-opening 5-2 loss at Ottawa.
Jose Theodore, who has yielded three goals in his last four games, is expected to start in net for the Canadiens.
STANDINGS (through Oct. 21): Islanders - 7 points, 1st place, Atlantic Division. Canadiens - 8 points, 2nd place, 2 PB, Northeast Division.
TEAM LEADERS: Islanders - Czerkawski, 5 goals and 6 points; Oleg Kvasha, Jason Blake and Adrian Aucoin, 3 assists; Eric Godard, 29 PIM. Canadiens - Yanic Perreault and Mike Ribeiro, 3 goals; Andrei Markov, 4 assists; Ribeiro, 6 points; Jason Ward, 13 PIM.
SPECIAL TEAMS (through Oct. 21): Islanders - Power play: 18.5 percent (5 for 27), 11th in NHL. Penalty killing: 92.6 percent (25 for 27), 2nd. Canadiens - Power play: 19.2 percent (5 for 26), 10th. Penalty killing: 85.2 percent (23 for 27), 10th (tied).
GOALTENDERS: Islanders - DiPietro (2-0-1, 1 SO, 0.83 GAA); Snow (1-1-0, 5.56). Canadiens - Theodore (3-2-0, 1, 1.60); Garon (1-0-0, 1.00).
2002-03 SEASON SERIES: Islanders, 3-1-0.
LAST MEETING: March 20; Islanders, 6-3. At Montreal, Alexei Yashin scored twice and tied a personal best with his fifth career five-point game to lead New York.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Islanders - 1-1-1-0 on the road; Canadiens - 3-1-0-0 at home.