With only 13 regular season games left on the NHL schedule, hockey fans are either pondering about who their team could be facing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, how their team could make it into the playoff bubble, or who their team will be drafting in late June.
For the last decade New York Islanders fans have only been afforded the latter two options, but with the team sitting pretty in the number four overall spot in the Eastern Conference, Isles fans are undoubtedly looking at the standings to see who they could potentially draw in a first-round playoff scenario. While it’s certainly possible that teams such as the Detroit Red Wings and Washington Capitals could usurp New York in the Eastern Conference standings, the Islanders haven’t played like a team that is comfortable just making it to the playoffs this season.
Of course, a mediocre start to March (2-2-1) might not have been the way that Isles fans envisioned their team going into a new month of regular season play, but there will be little time for fans to worry about the team’s past doings as there will be several must-win games that the team will face over the next four weeks. Whether it’s a match-up against the Western Conference or a contest against an intra/inter-divisional team, the Islanders will still face some necessary tests before they can think about playing for Lord Stanley’s Cup.
No Slack On This Schedule
– Montreal Canadiens (March 14th – Nassau Coliseum)
The Islanders have lost both of their contests with the Montreal Canadiens this season, and it’ll be imperative for New York to beat the Habs in their last regular season match-up.
Considering the Islanders and Canadiens could meet up in the playoffs – given that both teams advance far enough – New York has to take at least one out of three games from Montreal. A win against the Canadiens wouldn’t put the season series into the Isles’ favor, but it would give New York a victory against a top Eastern Conference team that they haven’t been able to win against this season.
With Carey Price having a Vezina-worthy – and maybe even Hart Trophy – season, the Isles will certainly have to earn their victory against a team that is just above them in the playoff picture. Being so close to each other in the standings, both teams will be looking to secure a very crucial two points in this match-up – so fans can expect a very tight atmosphere that could come close to mimicking a playoff game.
– Chicago Blackhawks (March 17th – United Center)
Back when the Blackhawks and Islanders faced off on December 13, 2014, hockey fans probably had a boatload of questions regarding whether or not the Islanders were a legit team or one that was off to a fast start to the ’14-’15 regular season.
However, now that the regular season is almost at an end and New York is still holding on to its strong playoff positioning, the aforementioned question has probably been put to rest. Although many teams and analysts across the NHL have recognized the Islanders’ level of play this season, New York will face a different Chicago Blackhawks team on March 17th than they saw last December.
Playing with a healthy Corey Crawford – but minus Patrick Kane – the Islanders will be tasked with playing a team that has a very strong 21-9-5 home record. With only five games left to play on the road, the Blackhawks will definitely be one of the harder – if not the hardest – road tests that the Isles face for the rest of the regular season.
– Minnesota Wild (March 24th – Nassau Coliseum)
The Minnesota Wild – much like the Chicago Blackhawks – sit in the middle of the Western Conference playoff standings, but the Islanders must win their March 24th contest with the Wild for different reasons.
Last year (December 9th, 2014), the Isles suffered one of their more forgettable losses of the ’14-’15 NHL season as they blew two three-goal leads to the Wild – with Nino Niederreiter providing the nail in the coffin at the end of a dismal third period. While Niklas Backstrom played against New York in the first match-up, the Islanders are more than likely to face Devan Dubnyk, who is having a tremendous season as he currently owns the second-best save percentage and GAA statistics in the NHL.
Although the Islanders and Wild play in two different conferences, beating Minnesota would undoubtedly be a fulfilling victory for New York given the way that they lost in their December 9th match-up. Sure, the Islanders have had a good short-term memory this year after tough losses, but a solid victory against Minnesota would go a long way in showing that New York can move on after upsetting losses and use those games to fuel their efforts in future match-ups with the same team.
– Los Angeles Kings (March 26th – Nassau Coliseum)
The Los Angeles Kings are currently fighting for the last spot in the Western Conference playoff race – which isn’t anything new to the Kings, but it’ll certainly make them a tough opponent for the Islanders to draw so late in the year.
Earlier this season, the Islanders stole two points from the Kings at the Staples Center with a 2-1 shootout victory, and the Kings aren’t likely to forget that game. Coming up on the losing end the first time, Jonathan Quick will want to avenge his team when he squares off against the Isles at the Nassau Coliseum.
Despite that the Kings might not be one of the top teams in the Western Conference on a yearly basis, Los Angeles does its most important bidding as the regular season is winding down. With the Kings fighting for a playoff spot, every game will be the equivalent of a playoff scenario. If the Islanders can replicate their efforts from November 6th, then they will have made a real statement this season when matching up against last year’s Stanley Cup champions.
– Anaheim Ducks (March 28th – Nassau Coliseum)
Similar to their game against the Kings, the Islanders will face a team looking for vengeance when they meet the Anaheim Ducks for the second time this season.
Winning a 3-2 overtime game against the Ducks on November 5, 2014, the Islanders will go up against an Anaheim team that will have Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry in the lineup. While the Islanders had the benefit of playing against the Ducks when two of Anaheim’s most integral scorers were out with the flu, they also didn’t have to take shots at John Gibson or Frederik Andersen.
Matching up against Gibson – who has been playing really well with the exception of his March 11th showing – isn’t a fun task for any NHL team, but it’s one that will measure whether or not the Islanders have what it takes to beat a consistent top-tier Western Conference team – and one that has all of its moving parts healthy and firing on all cylinders.
– Detroit Red Wings (March 29th – Nassau Coliseum)
Islanders fans will definitely be soaking up John Tavares bobblehead night in this early-evening contest against the Detroit Red Wings, but with New York playing on back-to-back nights over the last weekend of March, this will be a game in which the team will have to dig deep in order to come out victorious.
With the season series split at a win a piece, Detroit and New York will not only be battling for the outcome of the season series, but they’ll also be fighting for playoff positioning. Even though the Red Wings are currently five points behind the Islanders in the Eastern Conference playoff picture, Detroit has four games in hand against New York and a win on Long Island would only give the Red Wings a clearer shot at jumping the Isles in the standings.
The Islanders only put up 23 shots against Petr Mrazek in their previous contest against the Red Wings, so they’ll have to be sharper on March 29th – especially since they will most likely be competing against Jimmy Howard in goal. Not only would a victory against Detroit put more of a distance between the Isles and Wings, it would help New York close out a hectic month of March on a high note and gear them up for the final days of the regular season.
– Pittsburgh Penguins (April 10th – Consol Energy Center)
Much like the Detroit Red Wings, the Pittsburgh Penguins are currently looking up at the New York Islanders in the Eastern Conference playoff standings – and the Penguins, similar to the Wings, have multiple games in hand on the Islanders.
Although the Islanders have already won the season series against the Penguins, there will be no time to take their Metropolitan Division rival lightly. Having established their dominance over the Penguins this season in two back-to-back late-November games, the Isles will have to keep up their level of play against a Pittsburgh team that is 20-10-3 at home.
More importantly, the Penguins might just be the hardest game on the schedule for the Islanders during the final days of the regular season. Despite that the Philadelphia Flyers might be fighting for their playoff lives in early April, the Penguins will be the toughest match-up for an Islanders team that will be playing the Blue Jackets and Sabres in three out of their last five regular season games, so this will likely be the Isles’ final test before heading into the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Why They Are Still “Must-Win” Games
At this point in the season, there might be some hockey fans that will read the headline of this article and ask themselves why the Islanders would still have must-win scenarios if their playoff fates are seemingly set in stone.
Yes, the Islanders have been a resilient group and have bounced back from adversity multiple times this season – with or without some of their top players in the lineup. However, in order to be a dominant playoff team, the Islanders cannot take their foot off of the pedal – especially with the postseason around the corner.
Sure, New York will have its fair share of games against lesser opponents (Buffalo, Philadelphia, New Jersey, & Columbus) that could very well be viewed as must-win games, but the true test of the Islanders’ mettle will come against the teams that are either on par with the Isles in the standings or are hungry enough to want to advance their respective playoff picture.
Playing three more back-to-back contests, the Islanders will have their work cut out for them in March, and while the team’s playoff fortunes are looking as bright as ever now New York must make sure that they keep their rhythm flowing by the time that mid-April rolls around – and what better way to do that than by beating some of the best teams in the NHL?
In his third year with The Hockey Writers, Toli covers all things related to the New York Islanders. Focusing on the Islanders, the NHL Draft & draft-eligible prospect goalies, and hockey history, Toli can be contacted on Facebook by searching/messaging Toli Metter and on twitter by searching @ToliMetterTHW.