UNIONDALE, N.Y.– The New York Islanders were leap-frogged in the Atlantic standings yesterday afternoon by the Pittsburgh Penguins, as they defeated the haggard New Jersey Devils out-rightly by a score of 5 -1. Fortunately for the Islanders, both the Devils and Penguins are the scheduled to visit the Coliseum within days of each other, so now’s the team to make a serious charge to lead the division.
As it stands, the Islanders may very well widen their lead in the division if they are able to muster wins these next four games. Suffice to say that although beleaguered, the Devils are never to be taken lightly. And as for the Penguins, I wouldn’t expect another lackluster performance from them when they visit on Tuesday. The Islanders’s ‘A’ game is what’s needed here. All hands on deck.
Simply put, if the Islanders are to be taken seriously, they have to sit atop the Atlantic Division (or within the top 2 seats, anyway) and begin putting serious distance between themselves and those teams like the Penguins and Rangers, who are bound to awaken and gather up momentum and some wins.
Most importantly, from a Conference perspective, realistically the Islanders are essentially vying for the eighth seed, and that’s not to say that they couldn’t run with the Division and the Conference. Who knows?
But most teams, one may safely assume, view that final contentious playoff spot as the one true paradox in the NHL at the moment: within grasp and as far away as the moon; do-able but likely improbable. Why? The schedule.
In case you weren’t aware, this truncated season only pins teams within their Conference (as to be expected,) so the balance between contention and elimination will sway literally with every shift, with every goal, and with every game.
Toronto Maple Leafs, Winnipeg Jets, Carolina Hurricanes, Philadelphia Flyers (who are the Atlantic’s current cellar dwellers,) and Buffalo Sabres, mere points separating the lot of them, all can lay claim to the last seat by corralling a series of short winning streaks.
Expect the ‘bottom’ tiered teams in the conference engaged in a mini-Stanley cup playoff run in-and-of-itself for that final 8th seed –a run that brings its own unique spin on hockey essentials, like line assignments, conditioning, coping with injuries, resting top-liners, etc. Or I could be completely wrong, and those who are first will be last, etc.
Speculation notwithstanding, the 8th seed may very well be depleted by the time the playoffs come around, so teams may want to avoid the stress and be aggressive with all aspects of their hockey schematics during the regular season. The mindset may be: “Everyone is pretty much playing the same type of hockey with the same types of issues in tow. All of us will be stumbling to the finish line.”
Or an 8th seed will feel inspired by simply making it, and win the whole kit and caboodle in the process. Whatever the case, the final month will make for some exciting and nail-biting hockey.
But the truth is, those aforementioned teams will, in fact, be in position to tip the balance of power. Again, because of this season’s schedule, the balance of power is still indeterminate until the final game. I just cannot see any one team running away with the Eastern Division. (So B’s fans, don’t get too comfortable. Enjoy it, but watch your back.) Each team should concentrate solely on winning every single game, letting the rest of us sort out the points issue.
Currently, the Isles inhabit the sixth spot in the Eastern conference, 4 points from the top-seeded Boston Bruins, and 3 from the Tampa Bay Lightning, who lost yesterday to the erratic but emerging New York Rangers.
If the post-season were to begin today, the 9th place Rangers would be forced to participate in a one-game playoff match against the 8th place Leafs to determine who opens the playoffs against the Bruins. The Rangers? Even I had them atop the division at this juncture, much to my dismay. (And much to my enjoyment, they’re in 9th. Hockey Gods, I thank thee.)
There are two teams I predict will give the Islanders the most trouble on the ice and in the standings, success being more a habit than a freak occurrence out at the Island: The New York Rangers and the Pittsburgh Penguins. For now, let’s leave it at that.
- Here are your point leaders for each respective team: (graph courtesy of espn.go.com)
- The Devils should expect to see lots of forechecking early on, especially from the Michael Grabner-Frans Nielsen–Brad Boyes line, as the Islanders will want to pounce on a very tired Devils team. That being said, one should never underestimate New Jersey. Ever.
- Martin Brodeur will be sitting this one out, as he licks his wounds from yesterday’s spanking.
- Expect Kyle Okposo to be moved around again if he’s out of sync with Tavares and Matt Moulson.
- Islanders’s goaltending issue: Evgeni Nabokov is coming off a 4-0-1 road trip, and the next several games require similar if not double the effort and success meted out by him these past two weeks. All the aforementioned begs the question: when to start Rick DiPietro?
- If DiPietro starts today, and if he has a strong game, does he start against the Pens on Tuesday? And I don’t see Nabby NOT starting against the Rangers.
- Do you rest Nabby against Carolina and Buffalo so that he’s ready for the second NYI-NYR matchup?
- The Islanders must think long-term regarding this issue, preparing for the ’13-’14 season and the arrival at Brooklyn. If they make the right moves, neither Nabokov and DiPietro will play at Barclays.
Follow Rich Diaz @eyesonisles
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