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With Tavares up front and veteran Nabokov in goal, Isles eye return to playoffs

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New Jersey Devils goalie Cory Schneider, left, makes a save on a shot by New York Islanders left wing Matt Moulson (26) during the third period of a preseason NHL hockey game, Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013, in New York. The Devils won 3-0. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

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New Jersey Devils goalie Cory Schneider, left, makes a save on a shot by New York Islanders left wing Matt Moulson (26) during the third period of a preseason NHL hockey game, Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013, in New York. The Devils won 3-0. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

UNIONDALE, N.Y. - With their eyes squarely on the future, the New York Islanders can harken back to some recent history to build on.

For the first time in six years, the Islanders are starting a season after making a playoff appearance, and there is every reason to believe that reaching the post-season can soon become a much more common occurrence.

The Islanders stretched the Pittsburgh Penguins to six games, dropping the final two of the first-round series after splitting the first four. Just getting into the post-season was a major accomplishment, even in the lockout-shortened season, and the task will be even greater this time in a full 82-game campaign.

"I definitely see the expectations are higher, and people are going to expect for us to be in the playoffs," new captain John Tavares said. "But just because those expectations are there, doesn't mean we are going to be there. We've got a lot of hard work ahead of us.

"We played well for six to eight weeks last year and now we've got to carry that over for eight to nine months, which is going to be really tough, especially for our team which is still a young group and developing in a lot of ways."

Tavares will again be a focal point for the Islanders after he put together an MVP-calibre season. He was chosen as the 14th captain in team history, following the departure of defenceman Mark Streit to the division-rival Philadelphia Flyers, and is ready to take on more responsibility on and off the ice.

But he will also count on a group of talented teammates such as Matt Moulson, Kyle Okposo, Travis Hamonic, and Josh Bailey for assistance.

"It's going to be a great task for us this year, but we're looking forward to it," Tavares said. "Playing in the playoffs makes you hungrier to get back there. You can sense that hunger. We want to get back there and prove even more to ourselves.

"We rely on each other so much. I don't think people can just expect me to do everything on or off the ice. I need those guys for us to be successful."

The Islanders open at New Jersey on Oct. 4.

Here are five things to keep an eye on with the Islanders this season:

EVGENI NABOKOV: Even though Rick DiPietro saw limited action in recent years due to injuries, he has been the Islanders goalie who has drawn the most attention during his checkered NHL career. That has now changed for good. The Islanders bought out the remaining years on DiPietro's long contract and brought back 38-year-old netminder Evgeni Nabokov to backstop the team in net and provide veteran leadership, too. Nabokov went 23-11-7 with the Islanders last season.

CAPTAIN TAVARES: Fresh off a season in which he posted 28 goals and 47 points in 48 games, Tavares has traded in the 'A' on his sweater for a 'C.' But the pressure will only grow for the just-turned, 23-year-old star centre. He was already the face of the franchise because of his skill and his lofty multiyear, multimillion dollar contract. Now, he will have the added burden of leadership at a young age. "I am just going to continue my growth as a player and as a person," he said. "Being an assistant captain has really helped me in that leadership role, and I think that will just carry over to now with getting the C."

MORE MOULSON: Only John Tavares' stellar season kept Matt Moulson from leading the Islanders in scoring. Moulson was solid again in putting up 15 goals and 44 points in 47 games last season. The potent duo will need to be every bit as productive throughout the season.

BROOKLYN BOUND: The Islanders have already experienced taking the train from Long Island to Brooklyn's Barclays Center for a public practice and played a preseason game there, too. Now they just have to wait two more seasons before they can officially call the sparkling arena their new home. While interest will surely grow for them to make the move away from aging Nassau Coliseum to Brooklyn earlier than 2015, team owner Charles Wang insists his club will honour the remaining years on its current lease.

COUNTING ON CLUTTERBUCK: New forward Cal Clutterbuck will have to wait a while to make his real debut with the Islanders. Clutterbuck, acquired by New York in an off-season trade with Minnesota that sent Nino Niederreiter to the Wild, sustained a laceration on his leg from a skate that could keep the rugged winger off the ice for four to six weeks — meaning a return sometime between mid-October to early November. One potential positive is the Islanders can get a look at Ryan Strome and decide if he is ready to be an NHL regular or if he needs to spend time in the AHL.

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