It's known informally among some Islanders fans as the December swoon: The time when a season that previously looked like it could go either way takes a turn for the worse.
I'm not big on arbitrary calendar delineations (Did something change from Nov. 30 to Dec. 1? No.), so I ascribe this idea more to the fact that any NHL team enters December with about 23-27 games under its belt and exits the month with about half the season done. .500 hockey at the first-quarter pole is okay. But in the shootout era, quasi-".500" hockey at the half-way point (i.e., soon after New Year's) means you have some real catching up to do to get into the playoff picture.
For reference, the Islanders went 4-2-6-2 in November (W-OTW-L-OTL), for 14 points in 14 games.
The Islanders have 15 games this month, beginning with a difficult four on the road. But nine of the remaining 11 are at home. Three games against the Rangers this month, two each against the Flyers, Maple Leafs and Lightning. Injuries aside, there's no reason they can't maintain at least a point-per-game pace through the holidays ... but of course that is not enough to keep pace with the playoff bubble.
And how would it compare to recent Decembers?
Note: Goal figures do not include the phantom shootout goal, which is found in the laboratory and in NHL standings but not found in nature
December '08 began with a 10-game losing streak and didn't see a win until the day after Christmas. That was when John Tavares went from possibility to likelihood. Throw out last year's disastrous December and you have two similar stories of playoff bubblehood in the Ted Nolan years:
The Islanders entered December 2007 hanging on to 8th place in the conference (12-9-2) and exited at 19-15-3. Going .500 for that month actually bumped them up to 6th place on Jan. 1 -- albeit tied with three other teams who also had 42 points and would ultimately make the playoffs instead of the Isles.
2006 also saw the Isles tied for the 8th seed at the beginning of December, at 12-10-2. A 7-6 month left them in the same spot in the standings -- tied for 8th on points but technically in 9th because of the tie-breaker.
So were they December swoons? In a way. They entered above .500 but couldn't keep that up. More precisely, these Decembers past were reminders that ultimately, ".500" doesn't cut it in the bonus-point-inflated NHL. You have to keep extending your lead above a point per game pace, or else in early April you end up with 82 points, which is a full five wins out of the playoffs.
Three years ago, the Ryan Smyth acquisition and the Wade Dubielewicz Miracle helped them squeeze into the 8th seed by season's end. Two years ago, Rick DiPietro's All-Star Skills Competition "I #$%ed my hip" injury [note: view that video with caution. It still stings.] helped send the team from 6th place on New Year's Day to the 5th overall pick in June.
That's the "new NHL": It really is about parity in a lot of ways -- but one of those ways is that shootout loss-aided ".500" obscures the fact that your team is actually below average. So if the Isles "swoon" through this month to the tune of only a ".500" point-per-game pace, it won't be the worst thing for the progress of this rebuild. But it will mean they're even further back in the playoff chase than when the month began.
What about you? What are your hopes and expectations for the final 15 games of 2009?