Sprong the difference maker in Islanders’ turnaround

The expectations were high for Daniel Sprong’s return to Charlottetown.

He hasn’t disappointed.

Sprong has 44 points in 31 games since being returned from the Pittsburgh Penguins on Dec. 19.

The Islanders were 13-19-2-1 without Sprong and 20-7-3-1 since the NHL second-round pick and others joined the team during the trade period.

Sprong never missed a beat and has raised his points per game from the previous two seasons.

“It’s nice that all the individual stats are doing good but, most importantly, we’re getting more wins and we’re trying to go for a long playoff run here,” he said before Thursday’s practice. “I’ve reached all the milestones I want . . . the one thing that’s missing is the Memorial Cup.”

Sprong turned 19 on Thursday and was going out to dinner with his parents, who are in town for this weekend’s final regular season games.

The Islanders host the Acadie-Bathurst Titan today at 7 p.m. and the Halifax Mooseheads Saturday at 4 p.m.

They could be the final regular season games of Sprong’s junior career, if he turns pro next year.

“I want to enjoy them,” he said. “I think the last game will be pretty emotional for me as well, knowing it could my last regular season game.”

Sprong is not the only big piece that has made a difference in the second half.

Samuel Blais, Jake Coughler, Nicolas Leblond, Alexis Vanier and Guillaume Beaudry were all shrewd deadline deals, but one has to wonder if they would have been made had Sprong not returned.

Sprong has been the catalyst for the turnaround.

“He brought back belief to our room. It was a pretty bleak time for us at the Christmas break,” head coach Jim Hulton said. “It’s hard to put that burden on one guy, but one guy really did bring that back to our room.”

It started with a 4-1 win in his first game back in Sydney, N.S., against the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles.

It hasn’t stopped.

Hulton said he has witnessed the skilled offensive player’s game grow during the second half of the season.

He pointed to last week’s game in Saint John, N.B., where Sprong had four assists in a 5-3 win against the Sea Dogs, the Maritimes Division’s top team, as the game with his best structure.

“He played a smart, efficient game.”

Hulton said he’s been receptive to coaching and wants to go on a long playoff run to show he can perform under pressure.

Whenever Sprong’s junior career ends, he is likely to go down as the best player in P.E.I. Rocket/Charlottetown Islanders history.

“It would be pretty special,” Sprong said.

“When I was little I always wanted to play in the Quebec Major Junior League. I got drafted 13th overall to Charlottetown and it’s been three great years. . . I thank the fans, I thank the coaching staff and my teammates for believing in me.”

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