It all seems surreal. At the halfway point, the Islanders were playing one point better than our midterm predictions. The scorers were all pretty much on pace to hit the benchmarks we expected. Okposo we mentioned was failing in ways we never imagined, as was Hamonic. Roughly 12 games later, and they’re in 8th place, and tied second in the Atlantic.
OK, yes, it’s eighth and with 3 teams breathing down our necks, but lets look at some of the reasons behind this surprisingly entertaining season, and where it may go from here.
First, where is here?
Here is the Eastern Conference and the Atlantic Division. Before the season started, we expected the Islanders to finish last, again, as they were the only sub 100 point team in the division last year. And by sub 100, we mean sub 100 by A LOT. Yet, today this team sits behind only Pittsburgh within their division, which frankly is a stunning turn of events.
Next, how did we get here?
Luck. Absolutely luck.
Lets look at the Devils. That the greatest goaltender (maybe ever) goes down for a quarter season, and upon his return, one of the greatest scorers in the game takes an exit is a boon. The Devils were 3-9 without Martin Brodeur, and are 1-5 since Ilya Kovalchuk went down with an injury. In a shortened, 48 game season, the Devils are 4-14 without one of these stars in the lineup, a winning percentage of just under 18% covering more than a third of the season. Ouch.
And the Rangers? Sitting precariously in the 7th position in the East, the Nash trade cost the Rangers some of the grinding depth that coach John Tortorella loves. Trade deadline moves (to Islander fans: the trade deadline is a certain point on the calendar in which a team can no longer acquire players from other teams to improve their present roster. And yes, there are teams that actually look to improve their roster without a waiver wire) have helped add some grit and removed some polish, but for the Islanders this may be a plus, as that polish- in the form of Marion Gaborik- used the Isles to pad his goal scoring stats. The Rangers and Islanders are tied in standings and have a tiebreaker on the line this Saturday, so the next time these two teams play there will be more on the line than the usual regional pride.
The Flyers? No one foresaw this implosion. Well, almost no one. After moving away so many offensive players for defensive ones, who was going to score on this team? Throw in an injury to Danny Briere and the usual awful Philadelphia goaltending, and this team ended up being incredibly shallow. Good coaching is keeping this team on the fringe of the playoff hunt (3 points out with a game in hand), meaning that the two Islanders/Flyers games on the schedule take on added importance.
Winnipeg? Like the Islanders, surprise contenders. One point behind the Islanders, the April 20 game between the two is yet another playoff like atmosphere game in our regular season.
OK, so those are external factors. What about what the team has done?
Since we last analyzed this group, they are roughly 8-5. Yes, we’re not accounting for OTL because the postseason standings also do not. Not exactly world beaters. In prior posts we assumed that 53 points will be the playoff benchmark. We still believe so, although with so many conference implosions, 52 may get a team in the post season. For the Islanders to hit 51 points they have to close the season 5-4. That is entirely possible considering the strength of schedule that they face, as they only have one horrible game left in Boston. The rest are winnable games, if the team shows up. And here’s where our predictions from early this season come in, specifically regarding Capuano.
We predicted that at some point the team decides to stop employing the Capuano model and just go on their own. Assuming how little Tavares regards Capuano’s input- you can ignore the coach when your “battle level” is higher than his- his teammates were sure to follow. We also predicted that the second half all stars will do their own brand of March madness. Luckily, a second half means more in a shortened season than a full one. Two things we did not predict falls into two categories: offense and defense. Who foresaw the impact of Casey Cizikas and Colin McDonald on this squad? They have given definition to the bottom six in ways that a Marty Reasoner just was unable to in his two years, one goal era. And on defense, we were ecstatic that Lubomir Visnovsky finally joined this team, as he is a better Mark Streit. What we didn’t predict would be how Lubo has mentored Thomas Hickey. The only plus pairing on the Islanders defense, Hickey learned from Lubo that the best defense is played when the puck isn’t in your own end, and has learned how to skate it out or make a quick outlet.
As an extra plus, whenever you bench the Human Road Cone that is Joe Finley for the injury prone but smart Radek Martinek, your team benefits. Sadly, Capuano showed his lack of an eye for talent early in the season, as Cizikas sat for Reasoner and Radek for Joe. God knows how many games this may have cost the team.
Last point- what’s the record of this team when Rick DiPietro isn’t here? 11-6-3. When DP was playing? 0-3. The new backup? 1-2. Assuming Kevin Poulin was here all season and kept that winning percentage over 6 starts, that puts the Isles 6th in the conference.
Finally, where are we going?
This team has shown more resilience this season than in previous ones. Calling a spade a spade, that is due to the work of John Tavares. This team is still an expansion roster without him. Though prone to soft goals, Evgeny Nabokov has also pitched three shutouts, and has gotten stronger as the season has carried on. And although Garth Snow was typically disappointing at the trade deadline, with Ryan Strome in Bridgeport, there lies the potential to bring in a dynamic player at some point in this stretch run that may benefit this team immediately, as evidenced by his close to two points a game anywhere ever for his career.
When John Tavares demanded at the end of last season that this team has to be a playoff team, we laughed. And he heard us. No one laughs at John Tavares. He once again elevated his game and is a legitimate star in this league, and the best player in the state of New York and the metro region. Tavares is five to six wins away from shutting us up, and from shutting up all of the NHL fans that see the Islanders and think “national joke.” Can they pull this off? We’re not going to lie, though we do normally criticize this team, we are excited, however due the lack of finding a better Brad Boyes at the trading deadline, or better Keith Aucoin or a better Marty Reasoner we just feel that this all end up, in the long run, as more of the same…maybe just a few games later.
About the Author: We are two long time hockey fans who certainly have our own opinions and points of view. Feel free to share yours. Follow on twitter @joshbarely