Less than two weeks ago, we took a look at the Islanders’ playoff prospects and predicted they’d finish comfortably in third-place in the Metropolitan Division. Fast-forward to today, and the roof is falling through on the team’s season.
Where the Isles once seemed like a lock for the playoffs, they now seem like a gamble. Where they were once eyeing home-ice advantage in the first round, they’re now peering frantically over the postseason cliff. And where their season once had the feel of a rising current, it now has the feel of a cracking dam.
At Barclays Center in Brooklyn, it’s “Panic! at the Disco.”
On March 10, the Islanders were in third place in the Metropolitan Division, trailing the second-place Rangers by just two points. They had picked up nine points in their past five games – albeit in unsettling fashion – and seemed destined for a first-round matchup with their cross-town rivals. Standing 11 points clear of the cutoff for postseason play, the only question facing the Isles was whether they could pass the Rangers by season’s end and steal home-ice advantage.
Today, March 23, the Islanders are sitting precariously in the Eastern Conference’s first wild-card spot. They’ve lost four straight for the first time all season, and have just one win in their past six games. They’ve fallen five points behind the Rangers in the Metro and three behind the Penguins, who’ve run down the Isles like a Harley pursuing a tricycle. Meanwhile, the Flyers have gone on a surge of their own, and the Islanders’ playoff cushion has been shaved from 11 points to two.
An Altered Path
It’s amazing how drastically the team’s outlook has shifted in the span of 13 days. Forget passing the Rangers. Forget home-ice advantage. The biggest concern for the Isles now is fending off the Red Wings and Flyers down the stretch. Having set their gaze on the teams ahead of them for much of the season, the Isles have suddenly looked in the rearview mirror to find two conference foes all but sitting in their backseat.
And while the Islanders were asleep at the wheel, the Penguins happily cruised past them. In fact, it is this development that really captures the kind of free-fall the Islanders are in right now: just six games ago, they were eight points ahead of the Pens; now, they’re three points behind. Sure, part of that is due to the Penguins ripping off six straight wins, but it’s a drastic turn of events nevertheless.
If this nosedive continues for the Islanders, they’ll miss the playoffs. Period. Their odds of making the playoffs have already dropped about six percent over the past 13 days according to Hockey-Reference.com, and there’s simply too much hockey still to be played to bank on the teams behind them running out of time.
Both the Flyers and Red Wings have 10 games remaining. If they each pick up 15 points out of a possible 20 – a totally realistic scenario – they’ll end up with 98 points apiece. In order for the Islanders to clinch a playoff berth, then, they’d have to secure 14 points in their final 11 games. Hypothetical scenarios are facile, of course, and there’s no way to know exactly how these three teams will finish, but the unavoidable truth is this: the Islanders, one way or another, are going to have to turn this thing around.
A Look Ahead
Maybe the team can simply flip a switch. Maybe the players can huddle up and resolve to make things right. Maybe Jack Capuano can look them in the eye and demand more; maybe he’ll get it.
But it doesn’t seem that easy. This isn’t some flash storm that has only recently rolled in. This is an extended period of listlessness that dates back to the Isles’ West Coast road trip that began a month ago.
They survived at first thanks to a forgiving schedule, wins over Calgary, Vancouver and Winnipeg masking the team’s struggles. But their competition has stiffened of late and the Isles have begun to pay the price for their poor play. Had it not been for an improbable third-period comeback against Florida last week – one that, again, concealed a lackluster performance – the Islanders would be winless in their past six games against teams above .500.
The good news for the Isles is that their schedule lightens up over the next week. Aside from Friday night’s tilt in Tampa, they finish out the month with games against the Senators, Hurricanes (twice) and Blue Jackets. It’s a soft spot in the calendar on which the team must capitalize, because waiting on the other side is a four-game gauntlet that just might dice the Isles’ season. From April 2 to April 7, they play the Penguins, Lightning, Capitals and Rangers.
After that, they close out the year at home against the Sabres and Flyers. Two weeks ago, it would have been silly to suggest the Isles’ playoff chances might come down to the last game of the season. Perhaps it still is. For if they continue to play the way they have the past month, they’ll be eliminated long before the final buzzer.
Will Burchfield covers all things ‘New York Islanders’ for thehockeywriters.com. A 2014 graduate of Boston College, he has extensive writing experience both online and in print.