Will the Islanders hang near the bubble? And what if they don't?

As has been the case since Scott Gordon arrived, the Islanders' 5-on-5 results remain near the bottom of the league. Their .83 5-on-5 GF/GA ratio per game ranks 26th, ahead of only Edmonton, Carolina, Montreal and Columbus.

(I should note, their ratio has improved steadily since the unfathomable sub-.50 depths of December 2008, the injury-ravaged low point of Gordon's young reign. But then I should also note their special teams today each remain in the bottom five, at 75.1% and 16.1%.)

Goal differential, particularly at 5-on-5, is one of those stupidly simple ways to get a quick read on a team. Sure, your paycheck is signed with your win-loss record, period. But sometimes luck gives you a misleading string of more wins (or more losses) while goal differential hints that a dose of reality is looming in the long term.

The trouble with gauging a young team like the Islanders is three of their best players are 21 or younger, so as they get better the team gets better, but improvement at this age comes in stops (John Tavares) and starts (Josh Bailey).

Last night's no-show aside, the Islanders think they're playing better. Most of us agree they're playing better. Their 10-5-1 record since Dec. 23 says they're playing better (though it includes five shootout wins). But, I mean, do we think they'll continue to play better?

The Islanders total goal differential (in all situations, excluding shootouts) stands at minus-24, which is better than only Toronto, Tampa Bay, Carolina, Edmonton and Columbus. With rankings like that plus their special teams and 5-on-5 figures, are the Islanders just the 25th best team in the NHL? Did they fool some with the last month's hot streak? Or has their form since Christmas been a sign of a team getting better, and their season-long totals are weighed down by early-season troubles?

Lopsided games can skew the goal differential thing. You might be tempted to throw out last night's blowout, and then the differential drops to minus-19. But throw out the blowout of Detroit, and it's back up to minus-25.

What are you going on about?

I guess I'm curious as to where their "norm" is. With a team that's theoretically progressing and learning all the time, that's hard to peg, because tomorrow should be better than today, just as January has been better than December. (With a team that has just lost Jack Hillen for 6-8 weeks, that gets even harder to guess.)

So with that goal differential thing in mind, here's a look at three versions of the Islanders: The one that existed before this hot streak, the one that existed during this hot streak, and the one that stands as a season-long depiction.

GP W-L-O GF GA Dif. G.Dif/GP
Before Dec. 23 37 13-17-7 88 116 -28 -.76
Btw. Dec. 23 - Jan. 27 16 10-5-1 47 43 +4 +.25
Total as of Jan. 27 53 23-22-8 135 159 -24 -.45

My guess? As many have suggested for much of this season, this is probably a (NHL shootout-aided) quasi-.500 team. A point per game team or a little better -- good enough to be in the playoff conversation, but likely to be at least a Dubielewicz Miracle away from squeaking in. The record today is probably similar to the record we'll see come April 12.

Remember that the team before Dec. 23 had lost seven of nine, including two blowouts. But before that it was as five-hundred-iffic as it is today; they may have been due for a rebound back toward ".500" in December. I don't think they're bad enough to average .76 goals per game less than the opposition. But I don't think they're good enough to outscore the opposition for the rest of the year, either. They're probably good enough to tease us with hot streaks, deflate us with let-downs, and -- hopefully, Gordon willing -- impress us with relentless work more often than not.

So should they hang around the watered-down Eastern playoff bubble for the rest of the year, they'll give us a good show while crushing the dreams of those who desire the highest possible draft pick. They'd also probably convince us that they're as competitive as their record looked before last night.

But while I understand the "greater good" desires of those who hope, through one way or another, that they miss the playoffs and miss them badly, there's only one acceptable scenario for that: Injuries and/or trade deadline dumps. Because if the Islanders collapse and it doesn't happen through one of those "not-an-excuse but truly-a-good-excuse-actually" routes, then we'll have bigger questions to ask about the coach and/or the players as to why they couldn't at least keep up what they've done thus far.

In the mean time, I'll enjoy the bubble ride while it lasts. 'Cause you never know: This road trip could pump it up a bit, or give it a good pop.

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