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The Islanders at Christmas: Feast or famine

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A look back at recent Islanders’ records at the holiday break foretells this season’s fate.

Buffalo Sabres v New York Islanders
Faces of change who now need additional faces.
Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The New York Islanders hit the Christmas break in a tie for last place in the Eastern Conference, a full 12 points behind the last wild card holder after 33 games.

No matter what they tell themselves as they hit pause on the season, the odds of recovery in 2016-17 are long on their face and even worse when one considers how their underlying numbers show a team that is deservedly in the bottom fifth of the league.

This is actually a familiar spot for the team in the Garth Snow/Jack Capuano era: Over the last five seasons the team has been either demonstrably bad and cooked by the yuletide or demonstrably good and hopeful heading into the new year.

(The lockout-delayed 2013-13 season is an exception, both in that there were no games played yet in December of 2012, and in the Islanders’ well-earned but come-from-behind surge to make the playoffs that season.)

For fun, here’s a snapshot of their record at Christmas over the last several non-lockout seasons.

2016-17: Here we are

NHL standings at Christmas
Standings at Christmas 2016 via Hockey-Reference.com
Hockey-Reference.com

Unlike previous seasons where their record against Metropolitan Division — either very good or very bad — told the story, this season that’s not quite the case. They are 3-5-2 so far against Metro opponents, though incidentally they’ve only played the five teams who are currently in playoff position and practically running away with the wild card race.

They’ve yet to play the Devils or Hurricanes, but poor results against those two teams would send them on their way to another poor-in-the-division, poor-in-the-league fate.

2015-16: Undefeated in the Metro at Christmas

It now feels sadly like a distant memory or dream, but the Islanders were in excellent shape this time season, at least by record. There were already causes for concern with how they were playing contrasted with the previous playoff (and exciting) season, but their record looked great on Dec. 25.

(Meanwhile, the current season’s 1st-overall team on Christmas was in the ugly basement a year ago):

NHL standings Christmas 2015
Dominating the division (7-0-2) and a point out of home-ice advantage: What could go wrong?
Shrpsports.com

As you likely remember, the Isles lost twice on the final weekend of the year and drew...the Florida Panthers, whom a lot of fans were much happier to see. That worked out fine with their first playoff series win in 23 years.

2014-15: Depth is good

The previous season was similar: Here again you find the Islanders (at long last) dominating in divisional play at 9-2-0 and just a few points behind the conference-leading Pittsburgh Penguins, who’d knocked them off in their previous playoff appearance.

The Isles benefited from finally addressing their goaltending (Jaroslav Halak) and not sitting on their hands when their first free agent bids fell short, by adding key depth in Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin.

Yet lying in the weeds were the Washington Capitals, still adjusting to their new coach Barry Trotz but starting to pick up steam for their own surge up the standings.

NHL standings Christmas 2014
Killing it in the division! Competing for the top of the East! Life is great!
Shrpsports.com

Alas, a season finale shootout loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets would leave the Isles tied with the Capitals on points, but losing home-ice advantage due to tiebreaker.

The Capitals won a physically brutal series after the Islanders disappeared (except for Jaroslav Halak) in a 2-1 Game 7 loss in D.C. That’s the kind of game the Capitals historically lose, except when they’re up against a franchise who can match them baggage for demon, ghost for crushing disappointment, historically speaking.

Some can argue that the Islanders as we were coming to know them died that night in Washington; the less-exciting, less-assertive team that won a round last year did it on a karmic remainder.

2013-14: Old goalies, young goalies, woe is Lubo

That does it for the non-lockout playoff years. The other two most recent seasons show the famine part of recent Isles history.

In 2014 the Isles followed up the exciting lockout year — where the Coliseum came back to life and the exciting Isles scared the yinzer out of the Penguins in the first round — with a last-place finish in the Metropolitan Division.

Mind you, they were still an exciting team that could produce offense and tilt the ice with good breakouts and forecheck; they just had a 38-year-old Evgeni Nabokov in goal (backed up in alternating disasters by Kevin Poulin and Anders Nilsson for 47 appearances between them), and they lost Lubomir Visnovsky for all but 23 games.

NHL standings Christmas 2013
A keeper, a minder, my life for a goalie.
shrpsports.com

And it showed at Christmas. The Isles were worse than everyone but Buffalo in the East, and struggling with a 3-8-3 mark in the Metro.

2011-12: Ye gods the horror

Skipping over the lockout season in our walk back through time, Christmas 2011 was a very familiar scene for the early years of the rebuild. The Isles were at the bottom of the East and powerless to beat any of the Metro’s good non-Ranger teams.

NHL Standings Christmas 2011
Oh, those were the days.
shrpsports.com

What was that season like? A 36-year-old Nabokov played 42 games with a team-leading .914, while Al Montoya played 26 games and managed a paltry .893.

Steve Staios played 65 games at age 38, Brian Rolston played 49 at the same age, and the Milan Jurcina Anomaly was in the lineup for 65 games himself.

But most symbolically: A 19-year-old Nino Niederreiter played 55 games, put up one goal, recorded a minus-29, suffered at least one concussion, and got to know way too much about Jay Pandolfo.

So then...

Things started to change for the better the following season, the beginning of three playoff appearances in four seasons. Several assets from the rebuild started to bear fruit, and Islanders management started to correct or at least avoid repeating previous mistakes.

But this season sure looks like it won’t be four appearances in five, several Metro teams have advanced their own rebuilds and passed the Isles, and the franchise looks to be at a crossroads.

So, Merry Christmas then.

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Note: Several screen caps in data in this post are via ShrpSports, which is a really fun site for looking up stats and standings and other “on this specific date” queries in several major sports leagues.