We are on the eve of the Islanders’ first playoff appearance since Game 5 of the 2007 Eastern Conference Quarter Finals. It’s been six years, which really translates to “it’s been too long”. It may feel even longer if you consider the 2001-02 season to be the last real playoff appearance worth getting excited about. Pittsburgh’s looming, but there’s not a single doubt in my mind that this Islanders’ team will make some noise in this postseason. They have worked for this opportunity, they have earned this opportunity, and they will do whatever they can to prove they’re here to stay.
With that being said, there are some nerves in Islanders’ Country. Not only are the Isles matched up against the top-seeded Penguins, but they finished the season on a 0-1-2 skid. OK, so two of those losses came in a glorified skills’ competition that would never take place in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but the Islanders would have liked to earn the ‘W’ against one of those three non-playoff teams.
Don’t worry too much about that, though, Isles’ fans. In the big picture, the Islanders ended the season at the tune of 11-2-5. If the Islanders didn’t close the last third of the season in stride, chances are we would have all been tuning into the draft lottery very closely last night; so, that begs the following question: Why are the Islanders messing with the team’s chemistry?
At first, it may sound harmless. Brian Strait returns from injury and he’s slotted as the Islanders’ sixth-defenseman, a spot in the line-up that was filled by Matt Carkner or Radek Martinek, depending on the match-up. It made sense, in theory. Strait was arguably the Islanders’ best defenseman during his first thirteen games with the Islanders. He was playing with top-pair-minutes, registered a +3, and earned a three-year extension (at the minimum pay) for his play. Then he was injured. I said we didn’t know what we were losing, and the team struggled. During their first seventeen games without him, the Islanders went 7-8-2. Then things started to change.
The Islanders completed their sweep of Florida. Next, they defeated Washington. Then the Isles defeated Philadelphia. They followed that up with a 2-0 loss to Pittsburgh, but the Isles’ defense played great. From there, the Isles kept winning, but not just winning: they weren’t allowing many goals. The Islanders went nine straight games without allowing two or more goals, the first time they did anything like that since the 2003-2004 season, and all while rotating Carkner and Martinek in and out of the line-up. Before you knew it, the Islanders surged from the bottom of the standings to the middle of an Eastern Conference Playoff hunt behind a record of 10-1-2 over a fourteen game stretch.
Oh, yeah. Things were great for our Islanders, and you would think they would have gotten even better with Strait’s return to the line-up. He was back from injury just in time for the playoffs, and during the most crucial game of the season for both the Islanders and the Winnipeg Jets. Fortunately, the Islanders pulled away with the 5-4 win in a shootout, but that would be it for the remainder of 2013.
Over the final three games, the Islanders never did look quite in sync, dropping all three of them to non-playoff teams. Strait was in all of those games, as the Islanders messed around with other parts of the line-up. They played Eric Boulton in place of Jesse Joensuu. They dressed Carkner in place of Thomas Hickey. These were little changes, but they may have made all the difference, especially while the Isles were still battling for a spot that was higher than the 8th-seed.
Well, it turns out the Islanders have taken a gamble. Despite Strait’s excellent play at the beginning of the season, it should be noted that the Islanders were 6-7-1 with him in the line-up before his injury, and are now 7-8-3 with him in the line-up. As it turns out, the Islanders 18-10-7 without Strait in the line-up, which includes that 10-1-2 stretch as the Islanders surged up the standings during the end of March and through April. To myself, it’s not like it’s Brian Strait’s fault. The Islanders are just playing better hockey without him, as they have without Boulton (6-7-2), and as they have without Marty Reasoner.
With Strait already penciled in for the playoffs after missing the core stretch that put the Isles there, it appears the Islanders will also be turning to Marty Reasoner for the Islanders’ first game against the Penguins. As we know, Reasoner hasn’t played since the Islanders met with the Washington Capitals on April 4th, a 2-1 shootout loss. The Islanders watched Anders Lee score a goal on his first shot in place of Marty Reasoner. The Isles also watched Joensuu take his place, registering 8 shots on goal when he took over for Reasoner. The Islanders, who went 6-1-3 after sitting Marty Reasoner, will be sending the wrong message by allowing Reasoner back into the line-up.
And then there are the recent call-ups the Islanders made after the regular season came to an end. Obviously, the Islanders aren’t looking to dress Ryan Strome, Brock Nelson, and Matt Donovan (among others) for the playoffs. They’re here in case of an emergency. I just don’t understand how some of us can justify plugging in one of these unproven commodities for the Islanders biggest set of games in six years. Let the young guys get the experience of the playoffs from inside the locker room. It’s just not time to give one of these guys his moment. It’s not the time for experimenting. Not now.
For those familiar with my Twitter, writing, etc, you know the Islanders rarely do wrong in my eyes, but it doesn’t make sense to break up the team after the Islanders made it this far. The New York Islanders made the playoffs as a team. This team saw Radek Martinek and Matt Carkner step up when the Islanders needed them. This team saw the likes of Jesse Joensuu, Colin McDonald, and even Keith Aucoin fill Marty Reasoner’s lifeless skates. To mess with a chemistry that got the team to this point in the first place is unjust. I think the Islanders can win this series, but it’s not the time to tinker with the line-up at the cost of what made this “far-fetched dream” a reality.
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