The New York Islanders have their backs against the wall; they need to stave off elimination, they are on the brink, and so on. You know, and the team knows what's at stake in Game 5 of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal matchup with the Metropolitan Division champion Carolina Hurricanes.
A loss and another off-season begins where, once again, fans and those outside of the organization will question how this team gets better and whether or not the core group of players is good enough to be more than a fringe playoff team with talent but talent a cut below the rest of the playoff teams in the Eastern Conference.
But, we're not there yet.
Each time the Islanders have been doubted or counted out this season, they've surprised us and proved many of the naysayers wrong. You can go as far back as a 2-4 start staring down a difficult gauntlet of games in October where fans were uneasy about their outlook for the start of the season. That was followed by a strong stretch of games, and the team found themselves in playoff position by the all-important "Thanksgiving deadline," which is historically a strong indicator of how the field will look come April.
But then came January, dry January, where a series of injuries to key players, including Adam Pelech, Kyle Palmieri, JG Pageau, and others, led to the team being woeful offensively, failing to score more than two goals in most games and going scoreless in third periods after previously being a dominating team in the final 20 minutes of games. It was, by far, the low point of the season.
They won the final two games before the All-Star break and were close enough to the postseason for GM Lou Lamoriello to make a trade for "today and tomorrow' by acquiring Bo Horvat from the Vancouver Canucks and then signing him to an eight-year extension before his first Islanders practice. The excitement of the Horvat trade energized the team and provided a boost, only for the excitement to be tempered by Mathew Barzal's regular-season ending injury on Feb. 18 in Boston.
At that point, the Islanders were out of playoff position, having played three, four, or five games more than the teams ahead of or right behind them. Even some of the more patient supporters felt the team would fall off and become sellers at the deadline - only they didn't. They responded to the Barzal injury by returning to their defensive structure and, with that, a return to their winning formula.
The change in play made them likely to earn a spot in the playoffs as the Pittsburgh Penguins, Florida Panthers, Buffalo Sabres, and Ottawa Senators all scuttled their way through the last quarter of the season. But then there were back-to-back losses to the Lightning and Hurricanes in early April, followed by a playoff destiny losing 5-2 loss in Washington against a Capitals team without many of their top players.
The season was over again; only it wasn't. The Chicago Blackhawks shocked the Penguins the next night, and the Panthers only registered one point in their final two games. The Islanders took care of business on home ice, defeating the Montreal Canadiens 4-2 in the regular season finale at UBS Arena to clinch a playoff berth.
We're leaving a lot out, but the story of this rollercoaster of a season with as many twists and turns, ups and downs as I can remember across 82 games has been that as soon as you think you've come to know what to expect, that's when you when should expect the unexpected with these Islanders.