Prior to the Covid-19 global pandemic, the New York Islanders were slipping out of the playoffs. With the newly proposed format, they don’t have to worry about missing out and instead can focus on their second chance.
The NHL is still trying to work its way back from the pandemic as executives try to figure out a playoff format that accommodates everyone.
A recently proposed 24-team playoff format, including a bye for the top four teams in each conference and a play-in round for the rest of the teams, was approved by the National Hockey League Players Association. It’s worth mentioning that this format would only be used to award the Stanley Cup in 2020 and the NHL would return to the classic 16-team format going forward.
It now feels like a different season, but only eight months ago the Islanders were on a franchise-record 20-game point streak. Until March, they rode that streak but found themselves on the outside of the playoff picture. With the 24-team proposed format, New York ranks 14th in the league and 9th in the Eastern Conference placing them inside the playoff bracket. With the NHL’s pause and the new format, the Isles have a chance to collect themselves.
A Breath of Fresh Air
While other teams surged toward the playoffs during the regular season, like the New York Rangers and Columbus Blue Jackets, the Islanders have no one to blame but themselves. Their offense was abysmal prior to the pause and they acquired Jean-Gabriel Pageau at the NHL Trade Deadline to try and fix it. Pageau has since signed a six-year, $5 million contract extension and had two goals in seven games while the Islanders went 0-3-4. I’m not saying Pageau is the problem, but it wasn’t an instant fix. However, everyone can relax and take a deep breath. The Islanders can stop worrying about missing the playoffs.
The new format places the Islanders right in the middle of the play-in round. This is where the top four teams in each conference get a bye and the other 16 teams play against each other in a mini-series to advance. At this point, it’s unknown if the play-in round will be a best-of-five mini-series or the standard best-of-seven. The round is designed to cut the 24 teams down to the usual 16 and return to the traditional playoff format from there.
As it stands, the Islanders would have a 2016 rematch against the Florida Panthers in the play-in round. Whoever wins would move on to play the Tampa Bay Lightning (yeah, congratulations for that honor). However, after a two-month break, no team has momentum, most injured players will be healthy and everyone can come in with a “why not us?” mentality. Add to that, there’s no home-ice advantage because there won’t be any fans in the stands.
If anything, this should motivate the Islanders to show up and be ready to play. They were on pace to miss the playoffs in a season when they had points in 20 straight games. It would’ve been catastrophic end to the 2019-20 season for a team that looked like it was taking a step in the right direction the season before. Now, it’s time for Mat Barzal, Jordan Eberle and company to prove doubters wrong.
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Barzal’s explosive speed and playmaking skills are enough to keep the Islanders in the game, but he and the others have to be ready to go. The offense has struggled so the best-case scenario would be for all the lines to chip in. If they become reliant on Barzal, the Islanders won’t advance. If the scoring rests on Eberle’s or Anders Lee’s shoulders, they won’t advance. New York needs exactly what head coach Barry Trotz has taught them over the last two seasons: play a team game.
Despite the emphasis on “team”, the Islanders will be in big trouble if Barzal can’t get his game going. The reality is that he is the best offensive-forward on the Islanders. He relies on his skating to blow by some of the best defensemen in the league and because of that, he creates plays when there aren’t any. Also, Lee needs to have the scoring touch that everyone knows he has. Brock Nelson has also been one of the team’s more consistent players this season, and he needs to be ready to balance the scoring in the top-six forward group.
On the other side, the defense and goaltending weren’t perfect either. Due to the severity of his injury, defenseman Adam Pelech is one of the few players in the league who sustained an injury and is not expected to return if the season continues in July. Therefore, the defense will have to work with who they have at their disposal.
Rookie defenseman Noah Dobson has progressed through his first year in the NHL but he’s only averaged 13 minutes and 17 seconds of time on ice per game. Ryan Pulock has been the team’s best defenseman collecting 35 points and 10 goals throughout the season while averaging over 22 minutes a night. The goaltending tandem of Semyon Varlamov and Thomas Greiss have held it down for most of the year, but they were shaky at times too.
It would be wrong to assume all teams will be ready to go or all teams will be rusty. Some will impress, and some won’t. Anything can happen after an unprecedented two-month break. However, if everyone on the team can contribute in some way, that immediately puts the Islanders in a good spot, no matter who they play.
Any NHL Team’s Year
Only one thing is certain about the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Every team is on even ground. While there are still details to iron out, it’s expected that the NHL will use two neutral sites for games with no fans in attendance. There will be no home-ice advantage, no travel and no momentum going into the playoffs. As stated earlier, some players who were injured are now healthy and teams that had no chance of a postseason spot could now make a deep playoff run. Everything is essentially thrown out until the play-in round is over and the final 16 teams are remaining.
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Perhaps this is exactly what some teams need to get over the hump. The Minnesota Wild or the Arizona Coyotes have been close to making the playoffs or have made a first-round exit for a long time. The Islanders struggled like that for over 20 years, but if you’re a fan of a team that has struggled recently, would you want that team to win the Stanley Cup this year? The short answer is yes, of course, you do.
However, we have to remember that no matter who wins, even if it’s the Pittsburgh Penguins or Chicago Blackhawks (somehow), there will be an asterisk next to this season. More teams than ever have a chance to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup and the Islanders need to take advantage of their second chance. This year, it’s anyone’s Cup.