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Playoffs in 2012 a necessary step for Islanders

New York Islanders center John Tavares (91) checks

New York Islanders center John Tavares (91) checks Boston Bruins defenseman Johnny Boychuk (55) down along the boards during the third period of an NHL hockey game in Boston. (April 6, 2011) Credit: AP

There are plenty of reasons to justify the Islanders’ underachieving season this year and plenty of reasons to believe their outlook should be rosier for next.

But after missing the playoffs for the fourth straight year, the Islanders know that a post-season bid in 2012 is what will ultimately separate them from being either a team perpetually stagnating at the bottom of the standings or a team progressing toward the future.

“It’s time for us to put it together for 82 games and find a way to get into the playoffs,” said John Tavares, who finished his sophomore season with 29 goals and 38 assists. ”We want to get there and be there consistently. Obviously, that’s our next step.”

Said Blake Comeau, one of five Islanders to finish with 20 goals or more:

“If we stay healthy I see no reason why we shouldn’t be a playoff team…And not just a playoff team, but one that can go deep.”

Neither general manager Garth Snow or coach Jack Capuano were not made available to explain the team’s disappointing 27th place finish, but one reason is painfully obvious.

The Islanders stunning misfortunate with injuries was debilitating. The team led the league with 611 man games lost (586 not including suspensions), ost two of their best players—defenseman Mark Streit and workhorse forward Kyle Okposo--in training camp and played with a defense so depleted that veteran Radek Martinek entered Saturday night’s season finale with 312 more NHL games than the other five defensemen combined.

But the Islanders will return veterans Streit, Mark Eaton, Mike Mottau and Milan Jurcina on the team’s back end as well as young blue-liners Andrew MacDonald and Travis Hamonic.

In addition to the depth they hope to return on defense, the team also has two capable goaltenders—Al Montoya and Kevin Poulin--- to challenge oft-injured Rick DiPietro for the No. 1 job.

DiPietro bristled when confronted with questions about his place on the goaltending depth chart, but both Montoya and Poulin are expected to push him for the starting spot next year.

The 29-year-old feigned confusion when asked about his competition in training camp, asking “Who are we talking about here?,” but the numbers make it abundantly clear.

Montoya led the team in wins with a record of 9-5-5 and finished with a save percentage of .921 and 2.39 goals against average. Before a freak injury in warm-ups ended his season in February, Poulin posted a GAA of 2.44 and save percentage of.924. DiPietro finished last in the league in GAA ( 3.44 ) among all goaltenders with 25 games or more and second to last with a .886 save percentage.

Adding to a solid defense and netminding trio, the Islanders also have a strong set of young forwards emerging. Both Matt Moulson (31) and Michael Grabner (34) surpassed 30 goals, Tavares improved on an impressive rookie season, and Comeau, PA Parenteau and Frans Nielsen finished with career highs offensively.

“We’re pretty close to turning the corner,” said gritty fourth-line center Zenon Konopka. “It’s going to be fun on Long Island in the future.”

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