Islanders leaning on Skarek as schedule rolls on

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📝 by Patrick Williams

At long last the Bridgeport Islanders have some time to themselves.

Head coach Brent Thompson and his Islanders played just once this past weekend and scratched out an overtime point on the road against the Hershey Bears, one of the Atlantic Division’s top contenders through the season’s first three-and-a-half months.

While nearly every American Hockey League team has endured schedule disruptions this season, the Islanders have managed to continue to plow through their calendar. Bridgeport has had only one game shuffled so far, a home date against the Providence Bruins back on Dec. 4 that they instead managed to fill with a visit from the Utica Comets. For Bridgeport, last week marked the team’s first one-game week this season; the Islanders have just 31 games remaining on their 72-game slate.

At 15-18-4-4 (.463), the Islanders are trying to cover ground in the Atlantic Division race, and they grabbed at least one point in nine of their 11 games in January (5-2-3-1). They have an opportunity cut into the leads of their two closest targets this week in what is another relatively quiet period. Bridgeport hosts the sixth-place Lehigh Valley Phantoms on Wednesday morning at Webster Bank Arena before a Friday road date with the seventh-place Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, who have won seven of their past nine games. February’s itinerary is relatively tight for the Islanders, who will play six of their 10 games in the month at home and have minimal travel outside of a quick two-game jaunt to see the Charlotte Checkers on Feb. 11-12.

Thompson liked his team’s work in Hershey, an opponent that they managed to earn a point from in all three of their visits to Giant Center this month (1-0-2-0). Bridgeport will see the Bears three more times this season, all of them on home ice.

“I felt like [the Hershey game] was a playoff-type atmosphere,” Thompson said. “It was tight-checking, good pace, good intensity level. The overall game was a good game. I think guys can walk away and say they competed hard and unfortunately fell short. I’m really happy with the progression that our guys have [shown] at this point.”

Thompson built himself a 15-year pro career as a dependable, no-frills AHL defenseman before retiring in 2005, and his team has taken on much of that same identity. Consider Hershey head coach Scott Allen impressed by the Islanders’ earnest, hard-working approach.

“You look where they sit in the standings, and they probably deserve a better fate than that,” Allen said after Saturday night’s contest. “They’ve got some very good players. They’re very well-coached. They play within their structure. They play extremely hard.

“So we knew what we were going to get. When we’re playing them, there [are] no surprises, right? What you see is what you get out of them.”

Thompson and the Islanders continue to rely heavily on 22-year-old goaltender Jakub Skarek, who has blossomed with a heavy workload this season in Bridgeport. Skarek now has gone unbeaten in regulation for seven consecutive decisions (5-0-2) following his 33-save night in Hershey and is 12-8-4 with a 2.76 goals-against average and .911 save percentage for the season. Skarek’s 26 games this season have him third in that category league-wide, and his 1,500 minutes rank fourth overall.

The parent New York Islanders took the Czech goaltender as a 2018 third-round pick. He made the move to North America in 2019-20 and played a combined 28 games for Bridgeport across his first two seasons.

For the rangy 6-foot-4 netminder, Saturday featured another hectic night. He faced 15 third-period shots from Hershey, plus another three in 2:47 of overtime play. It took two goals from a Hershey power play that sits eighth in the AHL at 20.7 percent to defeat Skarek. He took eight of 11 starts for Bridgeport this month and has a firm grip on the team’s number-one job.

“Maturity and control [are] probably the biggest things,” Thompson said of Skarek’s signs of growth. “I think he’s a mature kid. He’s understanding things are going to happen in a game and his reaction to those things, whether they’re negative or positive, he’s level, even-keeled.

“So that maturity, that growth there, just his confidence in general, I think he’s doing a really good job with it.”

As Skarek goes, so will the Islanders, but Thompson is optimistic.

“I feel like the guys are all buying in,” Thompson said. “We’re trending in the right direction. Young guys are stepping up in different roles right now, and we really are finding our identity.

“You can tell there’s a good energy and a good vibe.”