The New York Islanders have been playing their worst hockey at the worst possible time. The team lost back-to-back games to the last-place Buffalo Sabres followed by another loss to the New Jersey Devils. The Islanders are almost stumbling into the postseason and there are many concerns about the likelihood of this team competing in the Stanley Cup playoffs and making a serious run. Is the roster just waiting for the playoffs to start? Are they only playing down to their opponents knowing that a playoff spot is clinched? Is the inability to generate offense on multiple lines a concern that will be easily exposed in the playoff matchups? There are plenty of reasons to be nervous but the late-season struggles should not be a great cause for concern.
The Islanders Will Receive Time Off
It’s no secret that the Islanders were a fatigued team in the final week of the regular season. Granted, the condensed 56-game season took a toll on every team, but anyone watching the Islanders could tell that the team was playing slow and simply waiting for the playoffs to start. The playoff spot is clinched and once they made the playoffs, it was about preparing for a run similar to last season.
The good news is that the East Division was ahead of the rest of the divisions in terms of scheduling and as a result, most, if not all teams in the division will conclude their season in the upcoming days. A few days off is what this team needs to not only rest but to be able to regroup and prepare for the Stanley Cup playoffs. This team needs a reset and should be able to enter the playoffs ready and prepared for any team they might face.
It Will Be About Matchups Moving Forward
When it became clear that the Islanders weren’t going to earn the top record in the East Division, the main objective would be to simply make the playoffs, which they did, for the third straight season. The division has been the toughest in the NHL with all four teams that have reached the playoffs being capable of making a deep run in the Stanley Cup playoffs and potentially winning the Cup. For the Islanders, the next few weeks are going to be more concerning in terms of the team they will face and how they match up against them with all three potential opponents being well-built teams.
The Islanders are likely going to face the Pittsburgh Penguins or the Washington Capitals in the first round, and aside from the record they have against them (winning only twice against both teams), how they will fare against their styles of play is a question-mark. The Penguins play with speed and can create problems for the defense on odd-man rushes while the Capitals have one of the best power plays and scoring lines in the game that can find goals against the backend of any defense.
The main priority for the Islanders will be to find out how they handle a great team in the playoffs and adjust accordingly as the series progresses. Last season, head coach Barry Trotz seemed to pull all the right strings in the first two rounds, allowing fans to feel confident in any playoff series that will require in-series or even in-game adjustments.
The Islanders Struggles Are Specific and Most Importantly, Can Be Fixed
The Islanders have been playing poorly in the past few weeks but in particular, have struggled on the offensive end of the ice. The defense has been playing great all season and the goaltending duo of Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin has been one of the best in the NHL, but goals have been hard to come by. The Islanders top line struggled to find a replacement for Anders Lee after he was placed on long-term injured reserve with a torn ACL. The subsequent line changes and acquisitions of both Travis Zajac and Kyle Palmieri failed to provide the scoring presence that the captain gave. Moreover, throughout the season, the third and fourth lines have been inconsistent with both shifts providing great scoring depth at times but also looking hapless in long stretches.
The reality is that the talent is there on the offensive end of the ice. The Islanders have one of the more complete rosters in the NHL and the forwards and more than capable of piling on the goals. The primary issue recently has been finding the right line combinations, with the ideal skaters being able to complement one another and the trade deadline acquisitions of Palmieri and Zajac failing to find the right skaters to play alongside. For the playoffs, the team can find the right line combinations but more importantly make adjustments as a series progresses. The recent struggles truly boil down to this one issue and for a team that has the goal scorers, it can easily be fixed with the right coaching.
How the Islanders Will Prepare for the Playoffs
It’s easy to forget that the Islanders looked like one of the best teams in the East Division for the majority of the season and only recently have fallen off. They will be a tough team to defeat in a seven-game series and can make it out of the first two rounds similar to how they were able to last season, with strong play throughout the roster. The ultimate question will be who they will face in the playoffs and how they match up against them. Hopefully, the Islanders find a favorable opponent and can make a run for the Stanley Cup as a result.
Mike Fink joined The Hockey Writers in November 2020 and covers the New York Islanders. In addition to covering the Islanders, Fink writes about the NHL at large and contributes as a weekly guest to The Hockey Writers Podcast. Follow Mike on Twitter @Finks_thoughts for more Islanders and general hockey insights.