With just 14 games in the regular season, the New York Islanders find themselves sitting in the last wild-card spot. They are currently just three points ahead of the Florida Panthers for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Although the Panthers have one game in hand, the Islanders have been playing their best hockey of the season lately. In their past 10 games, the Islanders have six wins, three losses, and one shootout loss. Even with the injuries to Mathew Barzal and Jean-Gabriel Pageau, the team has been able to string some wings together to stay afloat in the playoff race.
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They are about to head to the West Coast on a road trip, which includes games against the Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks, and San Jose Sharks. This is a crucial road trip for the Islanders because their schedule doesn’t get any easier. They have already played more games than any team in the Eastern Conference, while the Panthers and Pittsburgh Penguins picked up points over the weekend. The race in the East is so tight right now that the Islanders need every point that they can get.
Getting Healthy at the Right Time
The Islanders have been unlucky the past few months with key injuries to the lineup. On Saturday night, injured winger Cal Clutterbuck returned to the lineup giving the Islanders more depth on their bottom six. (from ‘Islanders’ Cal Clutterbuck returns but not the Identity Line,’ NY Post, 3/12/23) It’s expected that Pageau could return to the lineup as early as Tuesday, but head coach Lane Lambert won’t say for sure. “He’s still day to day, but we’re hopeful,” Head Coach Lane Lambert said of a Pageau return. Pageau had to skip practice Monday for personal reasons, but if he is able to return to the lineup on Tuesday, it will be a massive boost for the team.
Pageau is such an important piece of the roster because of his versatility. He can play anywhere in the lineup, and he is one of the best penalty killers in the league. After Bo Horvat, he is the Islanders’ second-best center on faceoffs. With Pageau nearing a return, and Clutterbuck already back, the Islanders are nearing full strength. They are still missing their star forward Barzal, but he has not resumed skating yet. Horvat has done a pretty good job of taking some of the penalty kill responsibility in Pageau’s absence.
“I would assume, just the way he’s really good at that kind of stuff,” Horvat, who was not penalty killing before Pageau’s injury, said on Saturday. “That’s kind of what he does. He’s been missed. I’m just trying to fill those minutes and fill that void” (from ‘As Islanders get healthier, who’s in, and who might be the odd men out?,’ The Athletic, 3/12/23).
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Although Horvat has done a really nice job filling in for Pageau, he is more important to the Islanders in other areas. With Pageau returning to the lineup, this will hopefully help Horvat increase his offensive production and provide more energy for him.
Key Stretch to Secure a Playoff Berth
You can say that these next three games are easily the three most important of the year so far. With the Panthers right on their heels, and the Penguins starting to gain momentum, the Islanders have to focus on maximizing this road trip with at least four out of a possible six points. The Kings are playing some great hockey, winning five of their last six and gaining points in all six games. They currently rank second in the Pacific Division with 85 points. They are in their own hunt as they are fighting for a division title, as well as home ice. The Islanders lost their last match-up to the Kings back at UBS arena on Feb. 24. The Kings did an outstanding job of shutting down the Islanders offensively, allowing just 18 shots the entire game.
“Just not enough sustained [pressure] from us,” Zach Parise told The Post. “I feel like they did a good job clogging up the neutral zone and when we did dump it in, we just weren’t able to continually keep pressure on them. They broke out pretty well on us,” (from ‘Islanders’ sluggish offense unable to overcome Kings’ second-period flurry,’ NY Post, 2/24/23). The Islanders must find a way to break through offensively tonight and get two points.
The next two games are both against the bottom teams in the league. The Sharks and Ducks have struggled mightily this year and have had a ton of roster turnover. There is absolutely no excuse for the Islanders not to come away with at least five points on this road trip. If they want to truly be considered a true playoff contender, then they need to take care of the teams at the bottom of the standings.