In the NHL, nothing is guaranteed. Everything is earned.
The Islanders have clinched a playoff berth after they defeating the league-leading Washington Capitals 4-3 in an overtime win on April 5.
Defenseman Thomas Hickey has been a clutch force, netting the game-winning goal. With the goal, the Islanders are headed to the playoffs for a second straight season and third time in the last four years.
The win was a complete team effort. Rookie goaltender Christopher Gibson earned the win in his first NHL start.
They currently stand in fifth place in the Eastern Conference out of eight possible spots.
This was a great and relieving thing to see. Especially because they earned the spot themselves, rather than waiting around to see if another team would lose.
During recent weeks, there have been many factors affecting the team’s play.
The loss of Travis Hamonic is a huge blow to the Isles blueline during their playoff push. He is sidelined for at least the remainder of the regular season and possibly into the playoffs. Last year, Hamonic sat out last year’s playoffs with a torn MCL. “Hammer” brings a physical presence to the defensive core that will be hard to replace.
All season, the Islanders have had one of the top goaltending tiers in the league. Strong goaltending has carried the Isles through much of the season and is now slumping. Ever since Jaroslav Halak went down with an injury, the spotlight has been placed on Thomas Greiss. Greiss has felt the pressure of being number one. The German-born goalie has been very sporadic in his last five games. He lost four straight games on a recent stretch allowing two goals against the Dallas Stars, three against the Philadelphia Flyers and six against the Tampa Bay Lightning. In his most recent trio of games, he recorded wins against the Carolina Hurricanes and Columbus Blue Jackets, teams who sit at the bottom of the Eastern Conference. He also earned a win against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Once standing within the top-10 in the league with the lowest goals-against average, has led to being booted out of that elite class.
Greiss’ backup, J.F. Berube showed some signs of reliability until late.
In arguably the most do-or-die game of the season in their own building on April 2, the Islanders were shutout 5-0 by rival Pittsburgh Penguins, with head coach Jack Capuano choosing to go with Berube between the pipes. Berube allowed a couple of routine goals during the most crucial game for the team.
This included a first-period short-handed goal allowed as a result of a miscommunication between defenseman Nick Leddy and Berube as the Penguins were on the penalty kill. The powerplay could not string anything together.
Compared to the Islanders, the Penguins seemed like a Stanley Cup contender. The Islanders just could not find a way to execute. Yes, the Isles won the previous three-straight games, but they need to find a way to defeat teams above them in the Eastern Conference standings.
It was nice to see some emotion shown from the blue and orange throughout the game. Matt Martin sparked the team and crowd with a fight against Penguins’ defenseman Ian Cole. Martin, a member of the fourth-line has been a sparkplug along with Casey Cizikas and the clutch Cal Clutterbuck. To the Islanders, they are not a “fourth-line” but an energy line and just as important as the three lines above them.
In the third period, Cizikas was shown looking defeated and frustrated about the team’s play. Clutterbuck has been a pleasant surprise with his scoring touch in significant situations.
Clutterbuck has 15 goals, including five game-winners this season. Cizikas has a career-high 27 points and continues to play a major role on the penalty kill. Martin, who can become an unrestricted free agent this summer, leads the NHL with 362 hits.
If the Islanders are going to secure a playoff spot, they need to compete with the more elite teams in the Eastern Conference. This is the most important time of the year to give it everything and more. Playoff-caliber teams cannot just fall flat the way the Isles did in that game.
The loss to the Penguins cannot alter the team’s mindset and goal in mind. Bad losses happen and can also ignite a team to come out even stronger the next few games as well as the rest of the regular season into the playoffs. This was certainly a turning point.
One thing that a successful playoff team cannot do is come alive only in the third period. Trailing going into the final period is not a way to play or even feel safe in this league. Especially with the most elite participating in the playoffs, those opponents are going to find ways to capitalize on mistakes. Coming back after trailing in the postseason is a very difficult feat. Hopefully the team can finish the season healthy. Another area they need to improve on is finding a way to get past the first round. They have lost every first-round series dating back to 1993.
Ever since the loss against the Penguins, the Isles have rebounded with a vengeance, defeating the Lightning and Capitals and proving they are indeed a playoff-caliber team.
The remainder of the regular season has the Islanders playing two out of three tough games to close it out. With their next game coming against the cross-town rival New York Rangers, the Islanders will have to pick up the win to increase their playoff seed ranking. They have had success against the Rangers this season and will need to overcome adversity to earn two points on visiting ice. The other is against the high-flying Flyers, who have shown the league they are hungry for the playoffs. With two games remaining in the season, the Flyers hold the second Wild Card spot. We do not yet know who they will be facing in the first round, but the Isles will have to give it everything they have and want it more than anyone else to advance past the first round this year.
The postseason officially begins on April 13.