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Analysis: How Islanders’ optimism proved unfounded

New York Islanders center John Tavares looks on

New York Islanders center John Tavares looks on before a face off against the Washington Capitals in the first period of an NHL hockey game at Barclays Center on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2016. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

The Islanders assemble in Denver on Thursday, fresh off a four-day break and facing a steep climb to stay relevant over the final three months of the NHL season.

“Early on, we got behind the eight ball a bit,” Travis Hamonic said last week. “Some third periods, we maybe win half of those, we’re in the wild-card spot possibly. If you can win a couple in a row, you’re possibly back in the conversation.”

There are a lot of ifs and maybes to consider after the Islanders’ first 36 games — and even some what-ifs from this past summer.

Garth Snow’s decisions to let Kyle Okposo walk in free agency in favor of Andrew Ladd, to wait until close to the start of free agency to engage in serious contract talks with Frans Nielsen and to maintain the three-goaltender situation until just last week have not helped his team.

Jack Capuano and his beleaguered coaching staff have struggled to find a way to get the Islanders to play with consistent pace and push the play in all situations — after excelling at shot generation and suppression two seasons ago, the Islanders have fallen down the Corsi rabbit hole, currently sitting 29th in the league in average shots allowed per game, barely ahead of only the lowly Coyotes.

And the roster, from captain John Tavares on down, has been better of late but not consistently good enough to succeed in the difficult Eastern Conference. The Islanders have been tied or led in the third period in all but four games of their 36 this season but still have managed only a 15-15-6 record, the sort of failures that don’t speak to structure or coaching but simply lacking the fortitude to close out games with strength rather than hope.

This has been a collective effort to turn what had been an incredibly promising spring into a dismal fall and winter. Tavares’ double-overtime goal to defeat the Panthers and give the Islanders their first playoff series win since 1993 seems long ago.

“I think if you ask everybody in this room, everyone’s disappointed individually as well,” Tavares said recently. “For myself, I can certainly say I haven’t been at a consistent level, the standards I have for myself and I’ve always tried to improve on those. It’s been really up and down for our team and it starts to reflect on guys individually.”

With 46 games to go and the Islanders sitting in a tie for last in the East, can this team make the rest of the season worthwhile?

The underlying numbers say it’s going to be tough, given how many shots the Islanders allow — over 65 a game, 32 on net, according to Corsica Hockey. Sending Jaroslav Halak and his subpar .904 even-strength save percentage to Bridgeport is a start. In limited action, Thomas Greiss seems to be repeating his strong work of a year ago, currently sitting sixth in the league with a .938 even-strength save percentage.

And the Islanders, while not preventing shots better of late, are at least generating more and scoring more. Saturday’s 6-2 win in Winnipeg marked the fifth straight game the Islanders scored at least four goals, something they had done only six times in the first 31 games.

Planning to outscore your opponent while getting high-level goaltending may not be the most sustainable plan, but the Islanders are in whatever-works mode now. Their special teams have been poor — the power play and penalty kill are each ranked 24th — and the power play in particular still hasn’t compensated for the departures of Okposo and Nielsen.

Oh, and the Islanders will have to leapfrog a host of teams to get back in the race mostly on the road, with 27 of the last 46 away from Barclays Center for a team that has the fewest road wins in the league (four).

It’s bleak right now. If Greiss can maintain his form as the new No. 1 goaltender, if the scoring continues, if the special teams improve and if a couple of the red-hot Metro teams come back to earth, then the Islanders have a chance to get back in the race.

A lot of ifs and maybes. Those sting even more considering where the Islanders were just eight months ago.

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