The New York Islanders are coming off a back-to-back where they suffered two of their worst defeats of the season. They lost 5-4 to the Columbus Blue Jackets – the worst team in the NHL – in overtime and then to the Buffalo Sabres 2-0 the following night.
The recent games were a prime opportunity for the Islanders to build a cushion in the Eastern Conference standings and they only came away with one point. With a 37-28-9 record, they hold the top wild card spot in the Conference but only by one point heading into the final eight games of the regular season.
This week, the Islanders face the New Jersey Devils, Washington Capitals, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Carolina Hurricanes. To say that the upcoming stretch will be tough for them is an understatement. The only team in the upcoming week’s games that isn’t in a playoff position is the Capitals and they’ve beaten the Islanders twice this season with a 4-3 come-from-behind overtime victory on Jan. 16 and a 5-1 win on March 11.
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As a result, the upcoming games will determine if the Islanders are true contenders in the Eastern Conference and more importantly what this team’s ceiling is. So far, they’ve proven they can reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs but have yet to show how far they can go once they secure a playoff spot.
Islanders Defense & Goaltending Must Win Games When it Matters
The Islanders have been carried by remarkable defense all season, allowing only 2.70 goals per game which is fifth-best in the NHL. The unit is one of the best in the league and at full strength, can eliminate any offense thrown at them. Moreover, their goaltending has been arguably the best in the NHL, led by Ilya Sorokin who is putting together a Vezina Trophy-caliber season. The defense and goaltending have put them in a playoff position but the question is if it’s good enough to lead them to a Cup run.
The upcoming slate of games is where the Islanders need their defense to play at an elite level. They face some of the best offenses in the game, specifically, the Devils, who average 3.48 goals per game, and the Lightning, who average 3.38 goals per game. The Islanders must limit the opposing offenses and make the upcoming games low-scoring. They’ve won low-scoring defensive battles all season but have to do so when they face potent offenses as they will this week.
Additionally, these games will force the Islanders’ defense to not only limit some of the league’s best offenses but a wide variety of offenses. The Devils and Hurricanes overwhelm opponents with speed and quick cross-ice passes, especially off the rush when the defense is out of position. The Lightning and Capitals specialize in picking apart teams in the offensive zone with effective puck movement and quick shots near the net. The Islanders’ defense will have its hands full but if they are an elite unit, they can stop all four opponents from finding the back of the net and controlling the game.
Horvat Needs to Snap Out of Slump
Bo Horvat has been a great addition to the Islanders. Since being acquired during the All-Star Break, he has helped turn the team around and make them look like a playoff team. Along with centering the top line, he has been exceptional in all three zones, setting the tone when he is on the ice. The Islanders have gone 12-6-4 since the trade, helping them turn around a season that looked lost and putting them in a wild card position in the Eastern Conference.
While he’s given the Islanders the jolt they needed, Horvat has struggled to find the back of the net, especially recently. He has five goals and five assists in 22 games played since joining the team and hasn’t scored since the Feb. 26, 4-0 win over the Winnipeg Jets. His offensive struggles can be attributed to Mathew Barzal’s absence as Horvat scored three goals in seven games alongside him. However, he’s also struggled to find scoring chances and take advantage of his shot, making him a playmaker but not the goalscorer many hoped he’d be when the Islanders acquired him.
The Islanders must go toe-to-toe with some of the league’s best offenses in their next four games. Horvat needs to lead the top line but more importantly, allow the offense to keep up with the opposition. He’s created plenty of scoring opportunities but needs to shoot the puck more often and find the back of the net. Additionally, he needs to be the puck handler and difference-maker on the power play, a unit that has scored on only 16.59 percent of opportunities this season and has looked hapless since Barzal’s injury. The Islanders acquired him to be a star and now more than ever need him to play at that level.
Islanders Will Get a Playoff Preview
The upcoming opponents are likely matchups for the Islanders in the playoffs. Specifically, the Devils and Hurricanes can face them in the first round depending on which team wins the Metropolitan Division. While the Islanders can finish the season with the final playoff spot and face the Boston Bruins or miss the playoffs altogether, they are on pace to grab the top wild card spot.
The Islanders hope to make a playoff run but must prove they can beat the best teams in the Eastern Conference. So far, they’ve shown they can reach the playoffs but not make it far after that. While they reached the Stanley Cup Semifinal in 2020 and 2021 with a similar roster to the one they have currently, the team isn’t the same and the competition is significantly better this year. Moreover, the Lightning, who they face on April 1, had their number in both playoff runs, and the Islanders have yet to prove that they can beat the model franchise in the NHL.
Last week, the Islanders beat the Toronto Maple Leafs 7-2 on March 21. That win was a hopeful sign that this team can beat any opponent in the Eastern Conference, especially when they step up and play to their potential.