The New York Islanders have kept us off balance all year by providing a vertigo-inducing mix of impressive and disappointing performances.
They have risen to the occasion against some tough opponents, cracking open a window of hope that in the playoffs — should they get there — they could be a tough out like they were in the first three seasons under Barry Trotz. They’ve also followed up many of those results with puzzling, face-palm moments, some of them against the league’s bottom tier.
As things stand now, 22-17-2 after 41 games, they just concluded a humbling 1-4 road trip that now leads into a five-game homestand where they better do some real damage. It’s worth remembering that even during their back-to-back conference finals seasons, they weren’t exactly running away with things at mid-season.
However, the situation right now, in a very tough Metro Division, makes this homestand pretty important: They’re tied with the Penguins on points (46 each) for the final wild card spot, but the Penguins have two games in hand. Above them, the Rangers are five points ahead (first wild card spot) and the Capitals six points ahead. Washington, one of the opponents on this homestand, also just got Tom Wilson and Nicklas Backstrom back from long-term injuries.
There have been some nice stories this season, including leading scorers Mat Barzal and Brock Nelson, whose continued growth earned him an All-Star nod; Ilya Sorokin has mostly had a Vezina-candidacy season. Zach Parise and J-G Pageau continue to be any-situation veterans who can pick the team up when it’s dragging. Simon Holmstrom, Aatu Raty and Hudson Fasching have provided reassurances about team depth up front, while Sebastian Aho secured a regular blueline role that most had finally assumed would never be in the cards.
And certainly, they are still in the throes of bad injury stretch. Key defenseman Adam Pelech has been out for a month and his return remains disturbingly undefined. Kyle Palmieri has faced multiple alarming upper body (head) injuries. Semyon Varlamov, an important half of the team’s biggest strength, missed some time and was poor in his return last week. Presumably Barzal’s “tweak” that kept him out of the loss to the Flames is a minor one, but we’ve seen how “day to day” can grow.
There was lots of preseason debate about how bad the Islanders’ stand-nearly-pat* offseason would hurt them. (*Personally, I don’t think they meant to double down on last season’s roster + one more year of age, they just couldn’t find acceptable-cost upgrades outside of the Romanov trade. Whether that’s excusable is why we debate.)
After that minimalist offseason, no one expected them to be a playoff shoe-in. But in the first half they’ve had good enough stretches to keep us interested and thinking that a return to the playoffs was realistic after last season’s Road Trip From Hell and Covid perfect storm. They’re not far from playoff position right now; they just can’t afford many more stretches like they had out West last week.
The second half should be quite the ride.
- Coming back from the trip, the Isles had the weekend off. They’ll be back at it today, prepping for a better homestand, starting with the Wild on Tuesday. [Newsday]
- Mathew Barzal is considered day to day. [Isles]
- Lost offseason: Lou Lamoriello didn’t do enough last summer, and now it’s haunting the Isles. [Post]
- Maven’s Memories: Stan Fischler looks back at the turning points in the Islanders’ first Cup year. [Isles]
Last night’s NHL scores included the Penguins and Capitals picking up regulation wins, as did Tuesday’s opponent, the Stars (5-1 over Florida), while Thursday’s opponent, the Wild, lost 3-0 at home.
- 32 Thoughts on a Podcast: Breaking down big names on the trade board. [Sportsnet]
- The Sharks claimed Michael Eyssimont off waivers from the Jets. [TSN]
- The Oilers blew a two-goal lead and lost to the Avalanche and Cale Makar in overtime. So glad the Isles could be their momentary relief between losses. [Sportsnet]