February has the strong potential to be a make-or-break month for the Islanders’ playoff aspirations.
The Islanders entered their extended All-Star break/bye week in-season vacation in third place in the Metropolitan Division after a 6-6-2 stretch since the NHL’s three-day holiday break in December. They don’t play again until Feb. 1 against the Canucks at Barclays Center.
The upcoming 29-day month brings 15 games — after the Islanders completed a stretch of seven games in 11 days and 14 in 26 days overall heading into the break — including a four-game road trip against Nashville, Vegas, Arizona and Colorado.
March is no easier, with 16 games in 31 days and another four-game road trip as the Islanders head to Western Canada. But a substandard February could leave the Islanders with the long odds of trying to play their way back into a playoff position in March.
The trade deadline is Feb. 24, at which time it will be known whether president and general manager Lou Lamoriello can address the team’s lack of scoring or if the Isles stand pat, as they did at last season’s trade deadline and, for the most part, during the offseason. Lamoriello did strongly pursue unrestricted free agent Artemi Panarin, but the elite playmaker opted for less money in accepting a seven-year, $81.5 million deal with the Rangers.
Coach Barry Trotz did acknowledge after last season — which ended with a second-round playoff sweep by the Hurricanes — the need for more scoring “pop” in the lineup.
The Islanders are 22nd in the NHL with 143 goals, an average of 2.9 per game, though their goal differential of plus-11 is a respectable 11th in the league. But the Islanders scored two or fewer goals in seven of their 11 games in January. They scored one goal or fewer four times.
“We can take care of our own game. This group has got good chemistry,” Trotz said. “They care. Some guys have let their game slip a little bit. We can’t afford to let too many people have their game slip. We’re missing some pieces that are big pieces for us.”
Top-pair defenseman Adam Pelech is out for the rest of the regular season after injuring his Achilles tendon on Jan. 2. Gritty fourth-line right wing Cal Clutterbuck is out indefinitely after Patrice Bergeron’s skate blade slashed his left wrist on Dec. 19 at Boston. Trotz said there is a possibility that Clutterbuck can resume skating on his own after this extended break.
The Islanders remain a chasm-like eight points behind the first-place Capitals and four points behind the second-place Penguins, who went into the break on a 7-3-0 run. They have a one-point lead on the fourth-place Blue Jackets, who have won six straight, and a two-point lead on the fifth-place Hurricanes, who hold the second and final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.
“We’ve played a ton of games,” said top-line right wing Jordan Eberle, who has four of his seven goals this season in his last eight games. “It’s been a lot of hockey and, more than anything, the break gives you time to refresh your mind.”
The Islanders entered the break with a 4-2 win over the Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night. Goalie Thomas Greiss made 41 saves in his second straight strong start after Semyon Varlamov started nine of the previous 11 games.
“We’ll probably do some of that splitting coming out of the break,” Trotz said. “The February schedule is not kind. So I think you’re going to see both goaltenders getting a big load.”