Simply treading water in the midst of a playoff push is a path to sinking in the standings, but despite some recent strong performances and emotional highs, that’s probably the best way to describe what the Metropolitan Division-leading Islanders are doing right now.
They are 1-2-0 to begin a five-game homestand that will continue Sunday afternoon at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum against the Flyers, who are on the fringe of the Eastern Conference playoff race.
The homestand concludes Tuesday night against Ottawa with the start of a home-and-home series against the trade-depleted and adrift Senators before the Flyers return to the Coliseum on Saturday.
So the next four have to be considered winnable games for the Islanders, who lost to the Capitals, 3-1, on Friday night. The defending Stanley Cup champions scored all of their goals in the third period and matched the Islanders’ 81 points in the standings. (The Isles have a game in hand.)
The Islanders, who did not practice on Saturday, have lost four of six. They are 8-5-2 since their combined All-Star break and bye week after going into their extended vacation on a 15-3-1 streak.
“We’ve got to get back to where we were for the first 40 minutes [Friday] and all 60 the night before,” said Anders Lee, referring to Thursday night’s stirring 6-1 win over the Maple Leafs in John Tavares’ first return since leaving via free agency. “We have a game in hand here [on the Capitals], let’s take advantage of it. Reset and figure it out. These games coming up are too important to really sulk and be ticked off.”
The Islanders went 1-1-1 on their Western Canada trip just before this homestand, with dud performances at Calgary and Edmonton preceding a full-effort 4-0 win in Vancouver. The homestand opened with a 3-1 loss to the Flames, who again outskated the Islanders.
“We weren’t very good out West,” Lee said. “The Calgary game, they played us really hard. We responded well against Toronto and we played another great team [Friday]. It’s a combination of the lack of that top-end consistency we’ve had and playing really good teams.”
When the Islanders are not playing at their best, they struggle with turnovers and defensive-zone breakouts. Their power play is 0-for-8 over the last four games, and the work of the special teams typically determines success in the postseason.
“We had a tough time at certain points sustaining offensive- zone pressure,” right wing Josh Bailey said. “Philadelphia is a desperate team. I’m sure they’re going to come with their ‘A’ game and we’ve got to make sure we bring ours.”
President and general manager Lou Lamoriello certainly investigated bringing in a top-end scoring forward who could bolster the power play, but he ultimately decided not to mortgage too much of the future by trading away valuable assets and draft picks.
Lamoriello and coach Barry Trotz have a strong belief in the core chemistry of the group, and the Islanders stood pat at last Monday’s trade deadline.
The players saw it as the intended vote of confidence. But with each game intensifying as the regular season nears its end, they now must raise their performances.
The Islanders have 18 games remaining and eight of their last 12 are on the road, including the season finale at Washington on April 6.
“It starts with effort and the details,” said Trotz, who needs one victory to become the fourth coach in NHL history to reach 800. “Our focus just has to be the next game. If it comes down to the last game of the season for placing, it is what it is. It’s a situation where you’re getting ready for the playoffs.”