The New York Islanders kick off a six-game road trip Tuesday night in Minnesota, but ignore all the rhetoric about the arduous journey ahead. As far as Western Conference tours go, this one’s as cushy as it gets.
The Isles avoid the dreaded California gauntlet and steer clear of the Central Division heavyweights, preying instead on the soft underbelly of the big, bad West. They even wrap things up with a Sunday matinee in their own city, concluding the road trip before it officially ends. Taken as a whole, this six-game swing is far more an opportunity for the team than it is a burden.
If the Islanders can pick up a win in Minnesota, the rest of the points are theirs for the taking. After the Wild, they play the four worst teams in the Western Conference, a quartet of pushovers comprised of the Flames, Oilers, Canucks and Jets. Together, those clubs have won 96 games and lost 141, and all four of them have already turned their attention to prized prospect Auston Matthews.
(Why, what’s everyone else doing? asks Edmonton.)
It’s the second time the Islanders will face each of the Forlorn Four this season, and the pickings were easy in round one. They clipped the Jets, 4-2, back in October, blanked the Flames, 4-0, a couple weeks later, thoroughly dominated the Canucks in a shootout loss in January, and trounced the Oilers, 8-1, earlier this month. The playoff push isn’t about storming through the league’s elite; it’s about grabbing as many low-hanging points as you can.
And there’s eight of them dangling in the Isles’ path over the next two weeks.
For what it’s worth, the Islanders also beat the Wild when the two teams squared off on Feb. 2, and own wins in both their clashes with the Rangers this season. Altogether, then, the Isles are a 6-0-1 against their next six opponents, having outscored them 28-8 in the process. Where some teams tend to eye road trips with unease, the Islanders have to be looking ahead and licking their chops.
So this isn’t a stretch of the schedule the team needs to “withstand” or “get through,” as we like to say. The goal isn’t to come out alive. This is a string of games the Isles need to dominate in order to solidify their playoff positioning, which means picking up at least eight points out of the 12 on the table. Don’t let the notion of a road trip obscure this simple fact: the Islanders have reached a soft spot in their schedule.
And they must capitalize.
After a home date with the Penguins on March 8, the Isles hit the road again for five of their next six games — and that’s a stretch wherein survival is the aim. Outside of a gimme against Toronto, they pay visits to Boston, Pittsburgh, Nashville and Dallas, with a home game against the Atlantic-leading Panthers sandwiched in between. If eight points is the low target in their upcoming six games, it might be the high in the six after that (seven if you include the Pittsburgh game 3/8.)
From there on out, the Isles play a mix of teams good and bad. And they’ll hardly need a miracle if they first take care of business out West and then, yes, “get through” the stretch that follows. Again, success in the NHL is not built on consistently beating the best, but prevailing over those below you.
If the Islanders do just that in the next two weeks, they’ll make life much easier for themselves down the stretch.