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The psychology of pretending there's something to play for

"If you're down, you have to look at it as a challenge. And if we do come back and make the playoffs, people will be, like, 'Wow, those guys really came together.' It's something we want to do in this room."

That's not an insane Islander talking. That's Ryan Malone, who took the fat deal last summer and helped knife both his and the Penguins' shot at returning to the Stanley Cup Finals. Malone is discussing the mindset to attempt a no-chance playoff run by the Tampa Bay circus he joined.

Malone's hopeful "Wow, those guys really came together" line gave me a good chuckle. It also got me thinking again about how the have-nots carry on during this time of year, when all, standings-wise, is lost. For the Lightning in the preseason, there were actual delusions of grandeur -- that's why those vets signed on to what became a revolving roster door.

Now contrast that to the Islanders, who knew heading in that this would be at best a transition year that accidentally slipped into the playoff bubble and messed up a good pick in a deep 2009 draft. (350+ man-games of depth-starved injuries later, that accident was easily avoided.)

As NYI Fan Central points out, the Islanders have been in a lot of close games this season, have rarely been blown out, and have rarely stunk up the place for lack of effort. Their biggest problem all year long has been a shallow roster with no margin for error being decimated by the aforementioned injuries. That lack of depth is why the critical tying goal so rarely came, the slim lead so rarely protected.

Yet somehow, despite disagreement over forcing square Witts into Gordon's round system holes, the team has kept its spirits up. There has not been much turbulence coming from the locker room. The biggest drama was from outside the room -- in the handling and understanding Rick DiPietro's injury. Meanwhile, the kids are focused on getting better, and the vets have accepted the reality of this season without becoming cancers.

A credit to leaders like Weight, Richard Park and captain Bill Guerin? Probably. A credit to the media-shy coach Scott Gordon? I think so. And a feather in the cap of Garth Snow, who made his intentions clear over the summer, brought in a rookie coach to grow with after the Nolan power struggle -- and yet somehow lured two big-dividend free agents in Weight and Mark Streit? You bet.