The dreaded longest road trip in franchise history is behind them, and the New York Islanders not only survived it, they thrived.
The Islanders, who had only seven road wins the entire season, went 5-3-1 on what was most definitely a make-or-break trip that covered nearly three weeks.
All that did, however, was keep the Islanders in the thick of the wild card race in the Eastern Conference. They enter play Monday a point out of the second wild card position, trailing Toronto, and two points up on tenth-place Tampa Bay. The Islanders, Maple Leafs and Lightning all have 15 games remaining on their respective schedules.
In other words, the Islanders are in the next phase of make-or-break, and this time it’s the final push, the last four weeks of the regular season.
So, while Josh Ho-Sang’s first NHL in Dallas, Andrew Ladd’s overtime game-winner in Vancouver, Anthony Beauvillier’s game-winner in his hometown of Montreal, and Josh Bailey’s team-high ten points all are great souvenirs from the largely successful nine-game trip, the Islanders must forget all that and keep their focus on the task at hand, continuing to look ahead and not behind.
Making the playoffs for a third consecutive season is the goal.
Here’s how the Islanders achieve that.
No Storm Watching
The Islanders play the Carolina Hurricanes in a home-and-home set, Monday in Brooklyn and Tuesday in Raleigh.
They can not slip up and lose these games. No dreaded “first game back after a long road trip” malaise at Barclays Center Monday. No let up allowed Tuesday on the road against a Carolina team ten points in arrears of the Islanders, but a solid 19-10-3 in its home building this year.
New York has already lost twice to the Hurricanes this season –7-4 in Brooklyn on Jan. 14 and 5-4 in overtime in Carolina on Feb. 4.
That’s a lot of goals surrendered to a Hurricanes squad that has scored the fourth-fewest goals in the NHL this season.
Simply can not happen again Monday nor Tuesday. The Islanders have to snag all four points from Carolina, not to mention the other two still out there when the two teams face off one last time on April 6 in Raleigh.
Divisional Divide and Conquer
So far this year, the Islanders are just 9-8-4 within the Metropolitan Division.
The Isles are going to have to be better against their Metro rivals down the stretch to win a wild card berth into the playoffs because nine of their remaining 15 games are versus divisional opponents.
Fortunately for the Islanders, six of those nine games are against the Hurricanes, Flyers and Devils, all of whom are out of the playoff picture –and in the case of the Devils, hopelessly mired in a long losing streak with a lineup more representative of the Albany Devils instead of the New Jersey Devils.
Still, as noted above, games against the Hurricanes, Flyers and Devils are not gimmes, either. Plus they still have to face the Rangers, Blue Jackets and Penguins once each down the stretch, though the Islanders do tend to raise their game when facing these elite Metropolitan Division foes.
This season the Isles are 2-1-0 vs. the Rangers, 1-1-1 against the Penguins, and 1-2-0 vs. the Blue Jackets. Taking two of three of their remaining games against these teams the rest of the way is the goal.
Entering play on Monday, the Islanders are on an 11-game point streak on home ice, winning nine times and losing twice in overtime. With eight games remaining at the Barclays Center, where the Isles are 20-8-6 on the season, New York needs to continue to be home boys under interim coach Doug Weight.
Game day! The #Isles are back in NY taking on the Hurricanes at Barclays Center.
— New York Islanders (@NYIslanders) March 13, 2017
The recent successful road trip restored confidence in the team’s ability to win away from Brooklyn, but dominating at home will ease some of the pressure of having to win on the road the final four weeks.
It starts on Monday, where the Islanders Faithful will be waiting to welcome back their team to Brooklyn. While much is said about the issues with the Barclays Center as an NHL-caliber venue, what can not be overlooked is that this place can get loud when the fans turn on the support for the Islanders, providing a real home-ice advantage.
Research no further than the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs for the kind of boost and energy the Isles fan base can give for this team in crunch time. And make no mistake, this is crunch time. This is the playoffs already for the New York Islanders.