New York Islanders: Dangerous Underdog or Playoff Pretenders?

John Tavares Matt Moulson Islanders
John Tavares & Matt Moulson will have their work cut out for them when they meet up with the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday night. (BridgetDS/Flickr)

With the New York Islanders having secured a playoff berth for the first time since the last day of the 2006-2007 NHL regular season, hockey fans must be wondering how the upstart team will fare in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It has been an even two decades since the New York Islanders won their last postseason series, but the confidence that the current hockey team has shown has made Islanders fans think about how the team will perform in the first round.

The Islanders will certainly have their plate full when they match up against the Pittsburgh Penguins, and if fans aren’t thinking about potential playoff match-ups, they’re probably thinking about how seriously the Isles should be taken when they hit the ice on Wednesday night. While fans can have their preference as to which team they would rather the Islanders face, the simple fact of the matter is that the onus will be on New York to show up ready and prepared for playoff hockey.

At this point of the season, any team in the playoffs could be a threat, regardless of seeding. Since the current group of Islanders players haven’t had much playoff experience, the team might be regarded as just another lower seed waiting to eventually get bounced, but there are also just as many reasons for hockey fans to watch out for this youthful team in the postseason.

New York Islanders Trending Upwards?

The last time the New York Islanders won a playoff series, they had to make their way through a Pittsburgh lineup that featured the likes of Mario Lemieux, Tom Barrasso, Jaromir Jagr, Ron Francis, Ulf Samuelsson, and Martin Straka. Even though the 1992-1993 Pittsburgh Penguins team was laden with star players, the New York Islanders managed to defeat the Penguins in a thrilling series by playing a tough and physical brand of hockey – one that irritated Mario Lemieux to no end, and one that finished something like this:

Things have certainly changed in the last twenty years as the Penguins and Islanders have traveled in two different directions. While the Pittsburgh Penguins have become one of the most efficient offensive powerhouses of the NHL, the New York Islanders have been quietly developing their prospects over the last several years in hopes of building for a strong future.

During the beginning of the abbreviated 2012-2013 NHL season, the New York Islanders showed flashes of brilliant play, but the team was wildly inconsistent during certain stretches. However, on March 24, 2013, something seemingly clicked for the young Islanders as the team began a strong run of play that would see the team finish at an 11-2-4 clip over its last seventeen games. Despite the fact that the Islanders finished off the ’12-’13 season with a three game winless streak, the team’s communication level, confidence, and resilience have been at an all time high. Not only did the Islanders’ defensive pairings step up their level of play over the final games of the season, New York’s secondary scoring was one of the biggest reasons for the team’s ability to secure a playoff berth.

In particular, the play of Kyle Okposo, Josh Bailey, Frans Nielsen, Colin McDonald, and Michael Grabner allowed the Islanders to stay competitive during the final stretch of the shortened NHL season. Travis Hamonic and Andrew MacDonald have elevated their level of play as a defensive pairing as the season progressed, and credit must certainly be given to the Visnovsky-Hickey pairing as well. Brian Strait’s return to the New York lineup and subsequent pairing with Mark Streit gives the Isles three defensive pairings that they were sorely missing at the beginning of the season when the team’s defensive lapses were blatantly obvious.

On the other hand, not much can be said about the play of John Tavares and New York’s top line. John Tavares, Matt Moulson, and Brad Boyes all had their fair share of contributions during the Isles’ playoff push, but the pressure to produce will be on New York’s top line once the playoffs roll around. Whether or not the Islanders will be able to sustain the type of play that got them into the playoffs remains to be seen, but opponents should certainly be wary of a team that has been forging its identity over the last several weeks of the regular season.

Which New York Islanders Will Show Up?

The New York Islanders’ ’12-’13 regular season can best be described as a tale of two seasons. While the Islanders were mired in mediocrity throughout their first 30-plus games, the team geared up for a playoff push by playing determined hockey over its final 17 games. The biggest difference between the Islanders of the early portion of the season and the Islanders of the latter portion is the team’s ability to close out games by playing a hard-working style of play for 60 minutes.

When the New York Islanders were struggling to maintain a .500 record during the early stages of the ’12-’13 NHL season, the team oftentimes failed to play a complete sixty minutes. The Isles’ inability to sustain a consistent level of play for sixty minutes wound up costing New York on several occasions as the team managed to squander a number of third period leads. Not only were the Islanders not finishing games, they were also starting other games in lethargic fashion – something that would cost the team just as much as they would find themselves down a goal or two very early on in games.

Head coach Jack Capuano has stressed the fact that his team must play a physical and hard working game in order to succeed on a

Josh Bailey John Tavares Islanders
John Tavares regulates New York’s top-line duties, but the Islanders will need secondary scoring from players such as Josh Bailey if they want to compete with the Pittsburgh Penguins. (Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports)

regular basis. Throughout New York’s last seventeen games, one could tell that the Islanders were playing a “chip n chase” style that was bringing the team some immensely positive results. Instead of loosening up when playing with a lead, New York seemed to want to put the opposition away at every chance that they were given.

A large part of New York’s success in the playoffs, or lack thereof, will be determined by which New York Islanders show up on the ice. If the Islanders believe that anything short of a 60-minute effort against the Pittsburgh Penguins will be enough, then the team might just be in for a rude awakening. However, since New York has been playing playoff-level hockey for the last portion of its season, chances are that the Isles know what is at stake and what kind of an effort it will take to compete with a team such as the Penguins.

The New York Islanders certainly found out what it would take to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs in an abbreviated NHL season, and the team will undoubtedly have to sustain the same level of play that they mustered over their last seventeen games in order to have a chance against the Pittsburgh Penguins. At this point of the season, the players inside of the New York Islanders’ locker-room have been in a playoff-like mode for quite a while now, and it is unlikely that the team will forget the dedication, confidence, and resilience that it took to get them this far in a season filled with limited expectations.