Yes. Good teams lose games. But you have to worry after this one, especially coming on the heels of a flat effort against the lowly Hurricanes, who the Isles lost to in a shootout. The Islanders were outshot 30-22, and mustered only one goal against a team that averages giving up 2.94 per game. It wasn't an all around terrible effort, but they did not look like a team that can win in the playoffs tonight, end of story.
Midway through this season, I was calling for Coach Capuano to be fired as much or more than anyone else, but during this run, I gladly ate my words and accepted the fact that he had done a great job turning this team around. Although much credit can be given to Weight, Thompson, and mostly to the players themselves, Cappy needs some credit. But tonight, he screwed up, and it wasn't the time for it.
First off, he decided to go with the "tough guy" lineup tonight, playing Eric Boulton and Matt Carkner over Jesse Joensuu and Thomas Hickey. Yes, the Thomas Hickey who is a +9 and has been nothing but solid all year. He's easily been one of the more pleasant surprises in the NHL this season. But anyway, he was benched tonight for Matt Carkner, who logged only 13:44 of ice time and took a roughing penalty. he also had 2 of the Islanders' 8 registered giveaways. Then there's Eric Boulton, who barely hit 7 minutes of ice time, and took a cross-checking penalty that led to the Flyers first goal, on the power play. Neither of them fought. They combined for 1 shot on goal. Joensuu and Hickey average 2.14 and 1.05 SOG per game, respectively.
Capuano also decided to rest workhorse goalie and possible team MVP Evgeni Nabokov in this hugely important game. This was a tougher decision, with back to back games upcoming, playoffs on the horizon, Nabby starting 9 games in a row, and not looking particularly stellar on Tuesday in Raleigh. It makes sense to rest Nabby one of the last two games. It was either against the 20th in goal scoring Sabres on the last day of the season, which would give Nabby either 3 or 4 days of rest, or against the 9th in goal scoring Flyers, which would give him 2 or 3 days of rest before the playoffs. Makes sense to rest him against the Sabres, right? So we have our #1 goalie facing the better offensive team and also being able to get more rest before the playoffs, right? I guess not. Poulin did play well, though, which I expected, and I expect him to play well in the future for this team, but last night was not the time. Yes, in hindsight he played well and starting Nabby probably wouldn't have affected the outcome, but you still have to question the decision making of Capuano.
Overall, the team looked slower tonight, with less energy and less passion. Capuano always talks about "battling," but there wasn't much of that tonight. Isles didn't win many of the battles at all. They had an awful first period, getting outshot 13-4 and outscored 1-0 to set the tone for the rest of the game. The rest of the game, we didn't see the comeback kid Isles that fans have grown used to seeing during this late run. All teams lose, even the best ones, and fans shouldn't overreact and pretend the season is over all of a sudden, because it's not. But this one hurts a lot more than most.
Plain and simple, this was a devastating night for the Islanders. Not only did they fail to acquire a point or two against the then 12th place Flyers, but the Senators and Rangers both won in overtime, gaining them two points each. The Rangers tied the Islanders in points and pulled ahead of them in regulation/overtime wins, the first tiebreaker at season's end. The Senators also tied the Islanders in points and regulation/overtime wins, but currently sit ahead of the Isles and Rangers because they have a game in hand on both teams.
You know what that means? Yep, you guessed it. The Isles no longer control their destiny for the coveted 6th seed, if the season ended today, they would face the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round. There is nothing automatic about the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but the closest thing to it is the Penguins. With new additions Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, and Douglas Murray, the Penguins might be the deepest, toughest, and most talented team in the league. They have 70 points, 9 more than the 2nd place Bruins. They have a +41 goal differential, 14 better than the next best team, also the Bruins. They have 35 wins, as good as the Presidents' Trophy winning Chicago Blackhawks. And they've played their last 11games without Sid the Kid. To say taking on the Penguins in the first round of the playoffs would be a monumental task is an understatement.
The Islanders have no possibility of owning the tiebreaker against the Rangers, so in order for the Islanders to move back into 6th or 7th, they'll need to earn more points than the Rangers in each of their final games. The Islanders face the Sabres tomorrow night in Buffalo, and Nabokov will almost certainly be in goal. Needless to say, it's a must win. The Rangers final game is against the Devils on Saturday at Madison Square Garden. The Devils will be no easy task, as they've won 4 of their last 5, and 2 straight against the Habs and Penguins, but the Rangers will have a chance to clinch a top 7 seed in that game with a win, or the 6th seed with a win and Senators regulation loss on Saturday. The Islanders can only own the tiebreaker against the Senators if they have more regulation/overtime wins than the Senators at season's end (they are currently tied at 20; a tie at season's end would give the Sens the 2nd tiebreaker, points earned in games between the two tied teams.)The Senators take on the Flyers at home on Saturday as well, but that will not be their last game of the season. They will face the Bruins in Boston the following day to makeup for the game cancelled on the day of the Boston Marathon bombings. That means the Senators control their own destiny for the 6th seed, with 2 games left.
Islanders fans can do nothing but sit back and wait, and hope. Hey, that's what we've been doing for 6 years, so no big deal. Islanders suffered a big loss against the Flyers and got no help around the league, but they can bounce back. They've been bouncing back all year. All they can do is go out there tomorrow and give it their all against the Sabres to give them some momentum heading into the playoffs. Then they just have to sit back and hope the cards fall in their favor on the last two days of the regular season.
And whether it's the Penguins, Bruins, Habs, or Capitals they play in the first round of the playoffs: Challenge Accepted.