Middletown, N. J. – You all have heard the story before: Shy boy goes to a school dance stag, sitting on one end of the gymnasium waiting and hoping that a female classmate will come up and ask him to dance. The subject of many teen movies over the years, but somehow directly relates to the New York Islanders, as they continue their push towards a post season birth.
The Isles have been on the receiving end of so many jokes when it relates to the National Hockey League over the years, whether it applies to ownership, general managing, ticket sales, a broken down arena in Uniondale, outrageous contracts or just average play on the ice. Many are so consumed by the organizational downfalls that they totally ignored what was happening right under their nose.
This team was taking every calculated step in the right direction, grooming young players and setting up the building blocks for success. When Charles Wang tried to keep the team in Long Island and could not, he did not waver: he quickly went out and secured a lucrative deal to play at Barclays Center that will give financial stability and long term viability to the franchise for years to come.
The old adage of ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ could not be any more apropos in relation to our Islanders. When we thought the sky was falling, it really wasn’t. When we thought the team would never be relevant again, they have become so. The league and hockey experts from all angles have begun to take notice of this good, vibrant, frenetic young hockey team with their eyes on one thing, being that little boy at the dance who finally gets the girl and turns to all his naysayers with a confident and slightly cocky expression on his face–winking at us before the credit roll.
What Lies Ahead
You couldn’t ask for a more interesting NHL season.
From the trade deadline frenzy in the final hour, to the standings changing with almost every period on a nightly basis, this energy is what we waited so impatiently for during the lockout. This atmosphere engenders our love for the beautiful game as far as we are concerned; the reason we cheer, the reason we scream, the reason we shout, and sometimes, even the reason flying objects make their way across our living rooms. Seriously.
And at the end of the day, we would not want or have it any other way.
For the Islanders to make the playoffs, a lot has to happen, most importantly being taking care of their own business. For as of Monday afternoon, WE are the ones in playoff position. WE are the ones who control our own destiny. To quote the late, great Herb Brooks, ‘Play your game’. With only nine games remaining on the schedule and trying to be as objective as I can, I will attempt to break down what lies ahead, taking into account how teams are playing and what the most realistic outcome could be. (Games remaining in parenthesis)
5th place Toronto Maple Leafs (10) – Man did this team come out of nowhere or what? However, down the stretch they still have 2 games with the Rangers and Habs and singles with the Isles, Capitals and Senators. Will James Reimer hold up in goal? Where does the scoring come from outside of Mikhail Grabovski, Tyler Bozak and Phil Kessel? It is safe to say the Leafs have outperformed expectations this season, so a return to mediocrity might be in the cards. I am sure that will make everyone in Leaf Nation very upset but hey, it’s just what I do. Expectation – 4-6 for 8 points.
6th place Ottawa Senators (10) – The Sens dropped a huge pair of points last night to the bottom-feeding Florida Panthers in Sunrise, making their hold on the six spot in the conference even more tenuous than it might have been originally. This team has done everything this season with coaching, plain and simple. Paul McLean has been an absolutely magician behind the bench, squeezing every last itch of effort out of 23 guys every night without injured Erik Karlsson, Jason Spezza, Craig Anderson and Milan Michalek. No matter what happens to the Sens from here on out, there really is no other choice for the Jack Adams award as top coach in the league. With Anderson now back for the final ten, Ottawa faces Boston, Washington twice and Pittsburgh in games that could really give them trouble. Expectation – 7-3 for 14 points.
7th place New York Rangers (10) – The trade deadline infused some energy into the ‘other’ New York hockey club when it needed it the most. Remains to be seen if this momentum can be maintained however or was just a one time deadline bump. The potential that Marian Gaborik always had to score goals cannot be dismissed now that he has left Manhattan for more cozy comforts in Columbus. The Rangers strength can be equated on defense and in goal, and that gives them more than a fighters chance each time they take the ice. Henrik Lundqvist has been absolutely stellar of late, winning player of the week honors and Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh lead the back line. 2 huge games with Toronto and NJ loom ahead as well as a grudge match with the Isles but the rest looks pretty thin. Expectation – 6-4 for 12 points.
9th place Winnipeg Jets (8) – This could easily be replaced with the 3rd place Washington Capitals, as the two will probably battle right until the end of the season the the ‘Southweak’ division crown. The Jets have really struggled down the stretch, going 3-7 in their last 10 as an inability to hold or even gain leads has proven to be their downfall. They are blessed with talent in this lineup, from Alexander Burmistrov, captain Andrew Ladd and newly converted forward Dustin Byfuglien. On defense and in goal, they are an absolute mess. That is what seperates this team from the playoffs and an early visit to the closest country club. The Jets have only play Buffalo twice with singles against the Isles, Habs and Caps proving to be the toughest matchups. Expectation – 4-6 for 8 points.
10th place New Jersey Devils (9) – The Devils were really hit hard by the dreaded injury bug recently, having to play without top goaltender Martin Brodeur for almost four weeks then losing their only legitimate offensive threat, Ilya Kovalchuk. It remains uncertain if the Devils version of ‘rocket man’ can be back in time to right this sinking ship. Currently, New Jersey is in the midst of a seven game winless streak, their longest in 27 years! That is not a misprint. It really underlines how bad things have gotten on the New Jersey Turnpike recently. With a 2-4-4 mark in their last ten, they dropped a huge point in what has become a recurring theme lately to a team they should have handled, the Buffalo Sabres. Even in games with the Isles, they are two points back but have a real tough schedule with Boston, Ottawa, Toronto, Canadiens, Penguins and two intense battles with the Rangers. Expectation – 3-6 for 6 points.
For the sake of brevity, I would be remiss if I did not mention the red hot Washington Capitals, who have been led by the resurgence of Alex Ovechkin, now tied with Steven Stamkos for the league lead in goals with 25. They keep motoring along, getting more and more comfortable with bench boss Adam Oates style. The thinking here is that they win the Southeast division and claim the 3rd spot in the final post season rankings.
The Philadelphia Flyers and Buffalo Sabres currently sit farthest back at 4 and 5 points respectively. Looking at the upcoming stretch run for each of those teams, they could afford at most two losses to be effectively eliminated from any realistic chance at post season hockey. Those losses could come quickly as the Flyers play the Islanders and Ottawa this week while Buffalo faces off with Winnipeg and Montreal.
What About Us?
Currently, the Islanders sit in 8th place in the Eastern Conference, tied in points with the New York Rangers, who have a game-in-hand that they will play tonight against the Maple Leafs. With a 6-1-1 mark in their last eight, the Isles have done it with defense. After starting the season allowing 74 goals in their first 21 games (3.52 per game) it has been an incredible job by the entire coaching staff in tightening things up. Over the last 18 they have only allowed 45 (2.5 per game). To shave an entire goal per game off your ledger this late in the season is the primary reason the team is on an 11-5-2 run over that tough stretch of games. It does not get any easier from here on out. Home games remain against the Flyers, Rangers and Panthers while the team is on the road to Boston, Toronto, Winnipeg, Carolina, Philadelphia and Buffalo. Closing out the season with 5 straight on the road would be enough to scare the bejeezus out of most teams but not this club. Their 11-5-2 road mark is only bested by 4 teams in the entire National Hockey League this season.
With the predictions I laid out above (and I by no means have the sports almanac that Marty McFly was fortunate enough to luck into) here is where I see the projected end of season standings.
6. New York Rangers
8. New York Islanders
Under the scenario I laid out above, the Islanders ‘could’ conceivably go 4-5 for 8 points, giving them the 50 that would edge Winnipeg for the 8th and final playoff spot. Of course, they could also continue this incredible streak they are on and finish with a 6-3 record (my personal projection) to finish with 54 points which would create a 3 way tie with the Rangers and Maple Leafs for the 6th spot. The tiebreaker would then come down to regulation wins with Toronto holding a clear and decisive edge and the Isles and Rangers tied.
An incredible finish is before us and there has not been a time in recent memory to be more excited about this hockey club. From constantly improving superstar John Tavares, the excellent play of the 2nd line and a 3rd line that can grind and bang with the best of them plus an improving defense and stellar play by 37 year old Evgeni Nabokov, the Islanders will make the postseason and definitely cause some problems for a team that might not have seen them coming.
View From The Lighthouse
– For all the inconsistencies that the officials have shown around the league the Islanders are the least penalized team in the entire league leading the Blackhawks and Rangers. 9.5 penalty minutes per game far trails Toronto, tops at 15.8.
– Isles are also +15 in special teams differential, earning 132 power plays against 117 times shorthanded. That stat is a little skewed however by the fact the team is only 15th in total powerplays awarded.
– Isles are 1 of only 4 teams to not allow a shorthanded goal this season.
– It was announced today that Pittsburgh Penguins forward James Neal has been diagnosed with a concussion,resulting from an elbow by Rangers defenseman Micheal Del Zotto. No penalty was called on the play and no supplemental discipline awarded. ‘That’s about all I have to say about that’ (in my Forest Gump voice). But I will show you and let you make up your own mind.
As always, we do this for you and we thank you tremendously for taking the time out of your day to read us. We will have exciting material coming through the end of the season (no matter when that happens to be) as well as the summer when the eyesonisles staff attends and live tweets and blogs from the NHL draft in Newark, NJ.
Our editor, Rich Diaz, will be the pointman for your pre-game tomorrow as we look ahead to the big match against the Flyers. Also, make sure to check out our eyesonisles hub, located to the right on the homepage, where before each game we post a song to get you in the mood for Islanders hockey.
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@tazman19 (Yours truly, ‘Zeeker’) @eyesonisles (Rich Diaz, ‘Nabby’) @MoosiestMoose42 (Scotty Bonner, ‘Marts’) @MichaelWillhoft (Mike Willhoft, ‘Grabs’)