Can the Islanders Make the Play-Offs?
A little under 7 weeks ago, the Islanders season was on the rocks.
The club had suffered 10 straight defeats before a shoot out win over San Jose stopped the rot, albeit only temporarily as the team slid to a further three defeats before their first regulation win in over a month came against the Rangers on December 20th.
Since that win, the Isles are 11-6-1 and have closed the gap on their Metropolitan Division rivals.
Now 6 points shy of a post season berth, can the Isles turn their season around and make the play-offs?
For most people, it is still a long shot. The Islanders made the post season for the first time in 6 years last season, as a strong finish ensured the club clinched the 8th and final spot in the East; but a shaky start, followed by that painful winless streak, saw the franchise sink to the bottom of the Division.
Fortunately for the Islanders, Divisional rivals have endured slumps of their own – meaning the club is at least within touching distance.
Just 6 points separate the Islanders (50 points) and 3rd placed Columbus (56 points), whilst Detroit’s (57 points) grip on the second wild card spot feels tenuous. In simple terms, the club could jump from the basement to an automatic play-off spot with just four wins.
Lubomir Visnovsky is slated to return tonight against Boston, boosting a defence that has looked much more assured since Calvin DeHaan was called up from Bridgeport – with 22-year old providing something of a catalyst for the clubs blue line to recapture its form.
Meanwhile Captain John Tavares could be a serious contender for the Hart Trophy come seasons end, and star acquisition Thomas Vanek seems to be hitting his stride.
Combined with the stand out play of Kyle Okposo, who broke out during the play-offs last year and hasn’t looked back, and improved play from Michael Grabner, Josh Bailey and minute munching D man Andy MacDonald; the Islanders are one of the in form teams in the NHL. A good run heading in to the Olympic break could put them in a very strong position down the final straight – particularly with teams like Philadelphia slumping.
On the flip side, Vanek might not be an Islanders after March 5th, if the club is unable to sign him to an extension before the trade deadline, while the continued absence of Travis Hamonic and starting netminder Evgeni Nabokov could become an issue as the season progresses – though the latter could be back as early as Wednesday.
Realistically, the club will need all hands on deck if they are to make a serious run at the post season.
There is also the minor issue of having to overtake at least four other teams to clinch even a wild card spot. Sometimes it’s not just what you do, but what those around you do as well.
Re-alignment, and the resulting change to the qualification criteria for the post season, also make it a little hard to predict what ‘number’ the Islanders need to hit. In the last full NHL season, Ottawa nabbed the final play-off spot with 92 points.
Prior to that 93, 88 and 93 points sealed 8th place.
Despite the changes to the Divisions; it is not unrealistic to suggest the Islanders would still need around 90 points to qualify, and therefore a record along the lines of 20-8-0 to finish the season.
A tall order by any stretch.
The optimistic view point is that Garth Snow gets both Thomas Vanek and Andy MacDonald signed to extension and the club continues its good form, giving it the best chance of success – it may still come down to what other teams do, but the Islanders will have given it their best shot.
The more likely scenario seems to be that Vanek will probably be dealt before March 5th, with the club seeking a strong package of prospects and picks (plus perhaps an established NHLer) to bolster a farm already well stocked.
As part of this, the focus would then likely switch to the continued development of young stars like Brock Nelson, who has been excellent for the club so far this year, and De Haan whilst Snow draws up a ‘battle plan’ for the summer – where the club is expected to make a serious pitch to Vanek, as well as seeking to address its long term future between the pipes.
Whatever happens, it’ll be an interesting end to the season for an Islanders team who again appear to be on the verge of being truly relevant again.