The Playoffs Start Now
Sitting just 4 points above last place in the NHL on December 17th, the New York Islanders knew things had to change. And while they’re recent success has pulled them back into the playoff race with a still 2 and half months to go, the fate of their season may be instead decided in these next two weeks.
Just one month ago, there wasn’t much to be happy about out at the Nassau Coliseum. After losing goalie Evgeni Nabokov to a groin injury for 12 games, the Isles had lost 10 in a row without the veteran netminder, and totaled just 4 points in his absence. Nabokov finally made his much needed return to the ice, but to the tune of now two straight losses in overtime. The loss to Tampa made it 13 losses in the last 14 games, with just one win in an entire calendar month.
The Islanders had a few days between this latest defeat and a matchup with their fiercest rivals, the Rangers, on December 20th. Heading into the matchup the Islanders had just 25 points in 35 games, just 4 points ahead of the last-place Buffalo Sabres, to which they had no too long ago paid a hefty price for star forward Thomas Vanek. Although Vanek began to heat up, he seemed less and less likely to resign this upcoming offseason with each loss.
Fast forward a month. With Tuesday night’s win, the Islanders sit at 49 points, with 24 coming in the 17 games since December 17th. That December 20th matchup with the Blueshirts started the run with a 5-3 win(identical to Tuesday night’s score, both with Thomas Vanek game winners on the powerplay), as NYI has gone 12-5-0 since, and have now won 7 of their last 9. While still at the bottom of the Metropolitan division, they’re eyes are now looking up at the new Wild Card spots, of which entering Wednesday they sit just 5 points shy. After the team collapsed in the absence of Nabokov back in November and December, Kevin Poulin has won 7 of his last 9 decision replacing Nabokov full time for the second time this season as Nabby went down with another injury on January 6th.
One might think their new position in the standings might allow them to feel comfortable in their position, seeing as the playoffs are still 2 and a half calendar months away. But this next 2 week stretch for the New York Islanders might as well be the start of their playoffs.
Because the NHL allows its players to compete in the Winter Olympics, the league goes on hiatus this season between February 9th and February 24th, with play resuming on the 25th of next month. Islanders will have exactly one week and 4 games in that week before the league trade deadline of March 5th. The Islanders position at this point of the season will determine the future of Thomas Vanek, an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.
A large part of the improved play of the Island is their new virtually unstoppable top line. Since December 17th the line of Vanek-Tavares-Okposo has tallied close to 70 points, and are each at the top of the league individually in points in that span (Tavares 24, Vanek 23, Okposo 21). Any doubts on whether the line would be able to produce the same kind of chemistry that Tavares had with Matt Moulson who was shipped to Buffalo has quickly been quieted now that the Isles’ top 3 is the hottest line in the league. But the same concern still looms as it did when New York made the deal. While Moulson was a crowd favorite who seemed to have every intention on re-signing at the end of the year, Vanek has been looked at as an expensive rental since the day he arrived in Uniondale, especially with their crippling dry spell in Nabokov’s first absence. While many still believe it is more likely that Vanek would walk than re-sign, this past month of success has dispelled the notion that he will automatically be flipped once again come March 5th. While Vanek was of no value to the team at the cellar of the league, he has become a vital part of their resurgence.
These next two weeks are not going to be easy for the Isles, and they know it. After a shootout win over the Flyers on Monday, Kyle Okposo acknowledged the tough stretch coming up. “We’ve got the Rangers [Tuesday], we’ve got a couple of big games with them coming up, we’ve got [first-place] Pittsburgh coming in, so it doesn’t get any easier and we’ve got to be ready to play.” They took care of the Tuesday meeting with the Rangers, although it looked like it would go the blueshirts’ way early with two quick Rick Nash goals. The Islanders were able to dominate the rest of play and came back from a 2 goal deficit for the 2nd straight game, but the Rangers will get two chances for payback in the next 10 days, including a date in the Stadium Series at Yankee Stadium on the 29th.
With multiple games against top teams coming up, especially in the division, the Islanders have a great chance to close the gap in the standings and pull even closer to a playoff berth for the second straight year. There’s plenty of time left on the schedule to make that push. But if they don’t do it in the next two weeks before the February interruption, they may be forced to cut ties with their new star Vanek at the March 5th trade deadline after the Olympic break, which would no doubt mark an early end to their season.
Matt Moro covers the Islanders for WFUV Sports