After clinching a playoff berth last night in Carolina on the heels of a 4-3 shootout loss, the Islanders still have some work to do.
It all starts tomorrow night in Philadelphia as the Isles travel to the city of brotherly love to take on the Flyers in the first leg of a season ending back to back. The regular season finale is on Friday in Buffalo against the struggling and dysfunctional Sabres.
Points are important now for playoff seeding even after the clinch and the team has some areas of recent concern to discuss before beginning their drive towards the Stanley Cup. The defense, so good in the recent six-week stretch of games, has not looked sharp in games against Winnipeg on Saturday and the Hurricanes last night. Turnovers have ruled the day and they were not fleet of foot, looking a little slow and fatigued at times.
Could it be the emotionally draining games that they have had to play over the last two weeks with everything on the line sapping the energy level? Possibly and very likely – however they need to find a way to overcome those doldrums and get back to playing the shutdown defense that got them here in the first place.
The expectation is that the Isles will give Evgeni Nabokov the start in Philly, and then rest him for the finale against Buffalo to help him regain stamina for the playoffs. The forward and defense lineup should stay unchanged as you want players sharp as possible entering the post-season.
Let’s take a look at the Eastern Conference 5th through 8th seeds as we enter the home stretch…
5. Toronto Maple Leafs (55 pts, 3 GR, 61 MAX) @ TB, @ FLA, vs MON
You have to assume the Leafs, especially the way they have played all season, get to 59 points before the Montreal game. This essentially locks them into the 5 seed and a potential first round matchup with the Canadiens, which could become the most media saturated playoff series in all of sports. Only thing remaining is which team will get home ice as the 4 seed.
6. New York Islanders (54 pts, 2 GR, 58 MAX) @ PHI, @ BUF
7. Ottawa Senators (52 pts, 3 GR, 58 MAX) @ WAS, PHI, @ BOS
Ottawa can use a jolt now as the team is currently struggling to a 4-6-0 mark in their last ten. Maybe the stress of playing all those games without so many injured stars has left its scars. Chances are improving each day that Erik Karlsson could return for the playoffs. The Senators could very well lose to the Capitals and Bruins, putting them at 54 points.
8. New York Rangers (52 pts, 2 GR, 56 MAX) @ CAR, NJ
As much as it pains me to say, I really don’t see a way the Rangers don’t get in, even if they have to reverse and backskate to the playoffs. Inconsistent all season, they really were not even playing that well last week during their offensive explosion, which was masked by real shoddy defense by Florida and Buffalo and weak officiating against New Jersey.
9. Winnipeg Jets (51 pts, 1 GR, 53 MAX) MTL
It looks like a valiant effort is going to fall short to just not having enough games left for the Jets. With a home game remaining against the slipping Habs, they are not in control of their own destiny, as all the Rangers would have to do is win one of their last two to make Winnipeg lie in wait for yet another season.
The Maple Leafs, with an incredible 25 regulation wins (every one of their total) have every tie-breaking scenario over all the teams below them in the standings. 3 points in 3 games guarantees them at least the 5 seed.
Ottawa has one less regulation win than the Isles, with a game in hand. The season series between the teams had Ottawa claiming 5 points and the Isles 2 so handily to the Senators if the teams tie in the standings with the same number of regulation wins.
The Islanders are tied with the Rangers in regulation wins with both teams having two games remaining. The Rangers outpointed the Isles in the season series 7-4 so they also hold a tie-break against the Isles if the teams end up tied in points and regulation wins.
With the Islanders losing all tie breakers with the teams below them, it shows you how important these last two games are regardless of the clinch that occurred last night.
If they keep their foot on the pedal and solve the defensive deficiencies that reared their ugly heads over the last two games, the Isles should remain right where they are in the 6th seed. That would set up a juicy first round matchup with the Washington Capitals, which could be one of the more entertaining of the entire first round in either conference.