It didn’t take that long for the Islanders’ new coach to wrap his mind around the potential of his team.
“I knew probably 8, 10 games in that we could be in this position, yes,” Barry Trotz said.
They’re in position to make a run at first place in the Metropolitan Division. If everything breaks right, they could arrive there as soon as Friday night.
After beating NHL-best Tampa Bay and then St. Louis in the last two games and winning 12 of 15 overall, they are 26-15-4 and in playoff position, standing third in the division with their 56 points. Columbus and Washington have 59, but the Blue Jackets are in first via a tiebreaker.
The Islanders would first have to sweep their back-to-back set against the Devils Thursday night at the Coliseum and the Capitals in Washington Friday night in Trotz’s return after coaching them to the Stanley Cup last season. Plus, Columbus would have to fall at home in regulation to Montreal Friday night.
So it isn’t the easiest scenario. But whether or not it happens this week, the Islanders are shooting at being in first when the regular season is over.
“When we started the year, it was about finding our identity and find the way we play,” said Jordan Eberle, their first-line right wing. “Now that we know that we’re a good team and we can compete with anybody, I think that’s obviously the goal.
“Every team’s goal is to make the playoffs. … You want to give yourself your best chance to do well in the playoffs, and that means home ice.”
The difference between second and eighth in the Eastern Conference is just three points. But the Islanders are discovering ways to win.
They have eight players with at least 10 goals, the first time they’ve had that through 45 games since the 1984-85 season. Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss have formed a formidable tandem in front of the net. They’ve allowed the fewest goals in the NHL.
Trotz’s system has been an extra-large help, too. The Islanders allowed the most goals last season under Doug Weight.
“I think we’re playing a system in which we’re winning hockey games, and I think we’re only going to get better,” Eberle said.
The Islanders have beaten the Devils twice behind Greiss, 3-0 and 4-3 in overtime. They lost to Washington, 4-1, in Trotz’s first game against his former team. Now he gets to visit his former home rink.
“I'm going to have a lot of good emotions,” Trotz said. “The four years I spent there were tremendous. … I think the first time we played them here, it sort of was closure. I’m an Islander.”