3 reasons why the Islanders can hang onto a wild card spot and make the NHL playoffs

Three-quarters of the way through the 2023-24 season, the New York Islanders remain one of a few bubble teams trying to break into the NHL playoffs.

Mar 14, 2024; Buffalo, New York, USA;  New York Islanders defenseman Sebastian Aho (25) takes a shot
Mar 14, 2024; Buffalo, New York, USA; New York Islanders defenseman Sebastian Aho (25) takes a shot / Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports
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Has any other team in the NHL been through more of a roller coaster than the New York Islanders have this season? When the calendar year began, the Isles were just 17-10-9, and they held a three point lead in the wild card race. It wasn’t a great showing, but New York at least looked like a legitimate playoff contender. 

Then, the new year came, and the Isles struggled, going 6-10-5 between January 1st and February 24th, and they looked finished. But some strong defensive showings led to what became a seven-game winning streak, and the Isles looked like a team that had regained control of its destiny, at least for the moment. 

While their streak ended in shutout losses to the Los Angeles Kings and Buffalo Sabres, New York nonetheless played well enough to once again sit in a wild card spot with roughly one month to go in the regular season. And considering their recent momentum shift, it’s one of three reasons the Isles could be doing enough to hold onto at least that wild card spot and return to the NHL playoffs. 

Islanders could easily hang onto a wild card spot for the 2024 NHL playoffs

Sure, the upcoming schedule looks rough, with a couple of games coming up against the two best teams in the Metropolitan Division before they play a few sound contenders in the Atlantic, plus one of the Western Conference’s better groups. Despite the brutal schedule, however, the Islanders have shown fans and critics they can overcome these looming obstacles. 

No, their advanced analytics at 5-on-5 won’t impress many fans, nor will their ability to play special teams, as their power play is a solid but unspectacular 13th in the league, while their penalty kill is another story. But there are three qualities this team has that could help them parlay their recent success into another postseason appearance. 

The Islanders have age and experience on their side

Good teams that lack experience when March hits may be in for rude awakenings if they also lack a strong presence that can help guide them through what will be a rough six weeks if we’re talking about the first of March to the middle of April. Fortunately for the Islanders, this isn’t the case, as they are one of the oldest and most experienced teams in hockey. 

Sure, it’s been a rough ride for New York since October, but teams like them know what to expect in March and April. There is always a sense of urgency throughout an 82-game season, but that urgency turns up a notch following the trade deadline, and the Isles know it better than most.

While New York did nothing at the deadline, there is a good chance that had the deadline been earlier in the season, general manager Lou Lamoriello may have sold some of his more experienced pieces

That experience certainly helped during their seven-game winning streak, and with teams like the New York Rangers, Carolina Hurricanes, Winnipeg Jets, Florida Panthers, and the Tampa Bay Lightning coming up toward the end of the month, they must rely on that experience a little more. If that happens and the Isles keep up a consistent pace, they will control their playoff destiny. 

New York could be peaking at the right time

While the Islanders couldn’t extend their seven-game winning streak and suffered back-to-back shutouts, their recent outburst showed that they could still be peaking when they need to the most. Before their winning streak, New York was a mediocre 23-20-14, with a minus-28 goal differential, and they were operating at barely a point per game. 

That has since changed, as New York sits at a 29-22-14 record with 72 points, and they recently passed the Detroit Red Wings for the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. While it’s true the Islanders could fall back into mediocrity, they could also be that team this season who was rather even-keel throughout most of the regular season until it mattered the most. 

This time of the year also features no easy wins, regardless of who a team plays. New York will either face playoff contenders, teams looking to jump into one of those two wild card spots, or teams that are all but eliminated from contention and will look to spoil another team’s postseason aspirations. But thanks to their recent surge and despite the recent shutout losses, the Isles have shown they can overcome a lot when the stakes get high. 

For playoff contenders that have hit turbulence in March, like the Red Wings, it’s not a good situation to be in. But for teams like the Islanders that have been hot since late February, it’s ideal if they are indeed peaking. 

The Isles have more playmakers than their numbers show

When you take one look at the Islanders numbers, you will look away and write them off as nothing more than a fringe wild card contender. This team currently ranks 20th in goals scored and goals against, and next to their stellar goaltending at 5-on-5, nothing of note jumps out. 

Yet this isn’t to say the Isles don’t have enough playmakers who can help them make a serious run at not only the playoffs, but perhaps a top-three finish in the Metropolitan. Their top points producers, Mathew Barzal and Noah Dobson, are each on pace to snag well over 60 assists this season, and that’s just the beginning. 

Bo Horvat and Brock Nelson have been scoring goals nearly every other game, on average, while Kyle Palmieri and Barzal have also found the net 20 times. While you would like to see Ilya Sorokin end up with a better GAA than the 2.99 he’s currently dealing with, the 28-year-old has been stellar at 5-on-5, one of the positives the team analytics show. 

Playmakers, especially those with experience, are ideal assets for a team that needs to at least hang onto their wild card spot, if not leapfrog the Philadelphia Flyers to finish in the top three.