Brian Strait still gets chills when he talks about one specific goal. It was the 2013 playoffs and he and the Islanders were taking on the mighty Pittsburgh Penguins. In game four it was Strait who opened the scoring and in essence blew the roof of Nassau Coliseum in a split second.
“You know a lot of people recall that goal,” the retired d-man and now scout for the New Jersey Devils told IslesBlog in a phone conversation earlier this week.
“It’s not like it was a pretty goal or whatever, but it signified a lot for many people. We had lost game three and needed a good response. And I was able to get the first goal of the game luckily. But the eruption of the crowd and the fullness of the atmosphere in that building, it was something special.”
That whole lockout-shortened season was a special one of sorts for the Islanders. They made the playoffs for the first time in six years and pushed the Penguins enough to the limit to show they had essentially arrived.
For Strait, he had finally found a spot as a regular in the NHL, one that would last another two seasons on Long Island.
Strait had been a part of the Penguins’ organization from when they drafted him in ’08, and by the time the lockout-shortened season of 2012-13 rolled around, he thought things were good. The previous season, he’d played well for their AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton which led to him getting some time up with the big club and even a few postseason appearances. That led to the Pens qualifying him. But when he went to the minors to start out that ’12-13′ campaign, things just never seemed to click for Strait.
“I got out there and played 30 or so games and it was the worst stretch of hockey I’d played probably to date,” he recalled. “I was kind of in a funk that I couldn’t get myself out of.”
His struggles left him out of flavor with the Pittsburgh brass as the lockout was coming to an end, which led to him being placed on waivers.
On the eve of the start of the NHL beginning its campaign, Strait got the call that the New York Islanders had claimed him. The moment came as a total surprise to the 25-year-old, but he couldn’t have been any more thrilled to receive the chance. “Honestly, it was the happiest I’ve ever been in my whole life,” Strait said. “I was getting my opportunity.”
Strait had some connection with the Islanders when he arrived, having gone way back with forward Kyle Okposo to when they were teens and as members of the country’s 2008 World Juniors squad. So having a familiar face definitely helped the transition off the ice. On the ice, the newest Isle made a good impression early on.
After just six games, Strait was signed to a three-year deal. Soon after he would miss a chunk of the season with a broken ankle but did return towards the end year just before the playoffs. Still, as the season progressed, he and the rest of the guys in the locker room saw things beginning to trend in the right direction after years of the franchise struggling to find its footing again.
“At the time you don’t really see it that way,” was how Strait felt.
“Look I was picked up off waivers, it was me, Thomas Hickey and Joe Finley because the D-core was kind of a mess in there. So they brought us all in there to give us opportunities. Right then, there’s no doubt about it the club was still in a rebuild. But I think that shortened season and the steps we took and the fact that we made the playoffs, there was something there. We knew that. Ownership, management, the players felt there was some kind of identity being born there.”
Facing the Penguins in the postseason posed a huge challenge. Strait acknowledged that at that moment in time they were probably the scariest built team in a long time and that the league believed it was their playoffs to lose. But the Islanders were a spunky group. They would take Pittsburgh to six games and were eventually eliminated.
Many believed had the Isles somehow come out on top that series, they would have gone on a run. Strait feels the same way even eight years later.
“Now that I’m on the other side of things with scouting, you realize how tough it is to go far,” he said. “You obviously want to catch a wave and have a youthful team to pull something off, but at the same time experience and veteran presence are massive in the playoffs. I think we definitely had something where we could have won another round if we were riding that high.”
The next season brought about new expectations but as Strait tells it: injuries really derailed the club from the start. A bit of the magic had also worn off along with the team still dealing with inexperience. “We were ready to compete every year for a playoff spot, but we weren’t ready to compete for a championship,” Strait added.
2014-15 marked Strait’s last hurrah with the Islanders. It too marked the franchise’s first last time leaving the Coliseum — which Strait called “ridiculously intense” — but also another year they took another huge leap forward. The Isles were one of the best in the NHL a majority during the regular season and were deep.
“We had a strong team that year and obviously the moves Garth (Snow) made beforehand were huge,” said Strait. Snow that offseason brought in five key veterans — Jaro Halak, Nikolai Kulemin, Mikhail Grabovski, Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy, both of whom he traded for in a span of a few hours. “Those guys were all at the forefront and made an impact for our team.”
Matching with the Capitals in the first round, the Isles bowed out in a physically grinding seven-game series. That seventh and deciding contest in Washington, Strait pointed out that the club had no answers as they were defeated 2-1 and only produced 11 shots on goal.
“The rule of thumb is that when you play in those seven-game series, the best team usually ends up winning in the end,” he said. “I think their team was a little bit better than ours even though we were feisty and a very gritty bunch.”
Despite losing that series, Strait says playing that intense style of hockey was probably some of the most enjoyable moments of his career.
After leaving the Islanders, Strait would sign with the Winnipeg Jets but spent most of his time with their AHL club in Manitoba. He then moved on to the Devils and spent two seasons with their minor-league club in Binghamton before quietly ending his playing career due to concussion issues at the conclusion of the 2018-19 season.
Those three seasons ended up being the most Strait would play in the NHL, and all the memories will stick with him.
“Even to this day, I still have friendships that are going to last a lifetime,” he acknowledged. “Myself and Hickey came in together and we still stay in close touch with. Josh Bailey, I’m still very close with. I feel like they are a part of my story as a player for the time I spent with them. When I go to the games to scout, it’s good to see some of them having the success they are now because I was a part of my journey.”
For everything that has evolved for the Islanders, it all goes back to that season of 2012-13. And Strait finds it crazy that the same identity that squad formed that year has a similar feel to where the current team is now. ”
These are all the guys that I came up with and when I watch them now I feel like I’m apart of it,” he said. “I’m so happy to see their success and what they’ve grown into. I always felt like that group we had was a unique one.”
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