The Islanders will resume their season in good position to earn a second straight playoff berth but with a challenging second half to navigate in order to qualify.
Christmas brought Day 2 of the NHL’s three-day holiday break and the Islanders will open a three-game road trip on Friday night against the Blackhawks, possibly facing their former goalie and still fan favorite Robin Lehner.
The second-place Islanders (23-9-3) lost to the Blue Jackets, 3-2, on Monday night at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum. They will also face the Wild, who have a league-best 28 points since Nov. 14, and the first-place Capitals, who lead the Metropolitan Division by eight points, on the trip.
In all, 25 of the Islanders’ final 47 games are on the road and that includes two season-long four-game trips, one to Nashville, Vegas, Arizona and Colorado from Feb. 13-19 and then to Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Pittsburgh March 10-15.
There are 17 divisional games left, including eight of 14 through the Islanders’ All-Star break/bye week at the end of January.
The Islanders have yet to face the rival Rangers, but the teams play three times between Jan. 13-21.
Yet the Islanders, who went into the holiday break with three straight home losses and on a mini 1-2-1 skid, are more concerned about regaining their consistency than the path they must take.
“It’s enough talking about it,” captain Anders Lee said. “It’s just going out there and doing it. But we’ve got to go out and execute.”
The Islanders are getting consistent production from their top two lines and from their defensemen. But one glaring issue has been the composition and production from the bottom two lines. Having right wing Cal Clutterbuck (left wrist) out indefinitely complicates it further.
Andrew Ladd, Tom Kuhnhackl, Michael Dal Colle, Ross Johnston, Matt Martin and Leo Komarov are all in the mix for ice time as bottom-six wings.
But coach Barry Trotz has also struggled to settle on a third-line center with Derick Brassard often performing better as a top-six right wing. Trotz has tried using Josh Bailey, typically a top-six wing, in the middle on the third line. He’s also moved Komarov, more comfortable on the wing and as a forechecker, to center. With Clutterbuck out, Trotz tried elevating fourth-line center Casey Cizikas but he didn’t look comfortable as the third-line center, either.
The NHL trade deadline is Feb. 24 and that may be the second half’s most important date as president and general manager Lou Lamoriello tries to solidify his roster.
“We’ll have to get that right through our lineup,” Trotz said of the secondary scoring. “Last year, that was a big strength for us with a different line stepping up every night.”
The Islanders also need to win more games in regulation. Regulation wins (RW), rather than regulation and overtime wins (ROW), are now the first playoff tiebreaker and the Islanders have just 14. The Flyers (15), Penguins (15) and Hurricanes (16), all within three points of the Islanders in the division, all have more.