The Islanders have returned from their seven-game road trip with a record of 6-1-0.
Playing several games in a very short amount of time can lead to an exhausted team. This has shown with the injury bug taking a toll of some Isles recently. Since coming off the All-Star break, they have a record of (12-4-2). They are 7-1-2 in their last 10 games.
Most recently, the Isles have played the New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Toronto Maple Leafs all in a span of just over 72 hours, which just shows how packed their schedule is.
One key for the Isles is playing a full 60 minutes. Also, they possess the second-best penalty kill percentage, (86.4) in the NHL, only .2 points behind the St. Louis Blues.
In recent weeks, the Isles just have not been able to crack the code of the Eastern Conference and league-leading Washington Capitals. However, the team has shown its resilience and ability to play with the best of the best. During the Feb. 17 game at the Barclays Center, the Isles were down 2-1, until forward Frans Nielsen tied the game at 2-all with 1:44 remaining in the game. The Isles earned a point and forced overtime. However, the offensive firepower of the Capitals was too much.
A turning point in the season was the March 6 game against the cross-town rival Rangers. The Isles lost a 3-0 early first period lead, which they established less than five minutes in. Eventually, the game was tied 4-4 in the third. Isles Head Coach Jack Capuano made the decision to put the energy line of Casey Cizikas, Cal Clutterbuck and Matt Martin out on the ice. Some fans thought this was a questionable decision. Why not put the first line in to try to tally the game-winning goal?
With 1:28 remaining, Cizikas won the face-off back to Clutterbuck. Clutterbuck took a look and sniped the puck right over the knob of Anti Raanta’s goalie stick. When you have a team where anybody can be a scoring threat, even on the fourth line, that makes them a legitimate contender. As a team, the Isles rank fifth in the league in the goals per game department (2.86).
Scoring from the blue-line has also been a factor in the Isles’ recent success. Johnny “Rocket” Boychuk netted two goals in that game against the Rangers, leaving him only two goals away from his season-high in 2014-15 (9), with an entire month of the regular season left to play. The Islanders received 34 goals from their defense last season, including 19 from the tandem of Boychuk and Nick Leddy. This season, the scoring from the defense has been much more consistent, with all of the back-line getting in on the action. Travis Hamonic, Marek Zidlicky, Thomas Hickey and Calvin de Haan all have registered at least 10 points this season.
Young defenseman Ryan Pulock, 21, finally made his long-awaited NHL debut in the game against the Edmonton Oilers on Feb. 28. Pulock skated 14:46 (2:37 on the power play) and went minus-1 with a hit and two blocked shots. Pulock will get his time to shine soon enough.
Something that has been concerning is the health of fellow defenseman de Haan. The Carp native has been plagued by injuries in recent weeks. The Isles most consistent defenseman this season returned on Tuesday, March 1 in Vancouver after missing five games with a lower-body injury. He apparently aggravated the injury with a long flight home and a rare day off on Friday, March 4, and is now listed as day-to-day. Missing the game against the Rangers on March 7 brought him up to a total of six games absent this season. Leddy is the only defenseman to play all 64 games. The longest the team has gone playing the same six defensive pairs is nine straight games.
Besides defense, the Isles’ last line of defense, goaltending, has still been solid. With the tandem of Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss, the Isles never have to worry about consistency between the pipes. Greiss currently leads the entire NHL with a .930 save percentage. He hasn’t permitted more than three goals in a game since early January. Halak has played reasonably well since being pulled after allowing six goals to Carolina on Feb. 13, but he appeared very uncomfortable in the win against the Rangers, allowing two goals in less than a minute. However, in the game against the Penguins on March 9, Halak recorded career win 200. Unfortunately, he obtained a lower-body injury and is now out at least six weeks, which is the remainder of the regular season.
Forward Kyle Okposo has also been an important figure. He has surpassed last year’s season-high of 51 points already. Recently, he scored the overtime-winning goal against the Winnipeg Jets on March 4. Brock Nelson has proven himself as a goal scorer as well. The pickup of forward Shane Prince from the Ottawa Senators was a decent one by Islanders General Manager Garth Snow. Prince is a solid third-line forward who can chip in a point or two every once and a while. Last season he totaled 12 points in 42 games played with Ottawa.
Another accolade to mention is Capuano’s 200th career win as a head coach, which he earned in the overtime win against the Jets. In the New York sports scene, coaches always receive criticism now and again. The second a team goes on a losing streak, fans are always ready to fire their head coach. Despite the criticism, Capuano has turned around an Isles team from the brink of failure, into a close-knit group who now has the ability to go far in the playoffs. So far, he has brought them to the playoffs twice — in 2012-13 and 2015-16. Now, the goal is to get this more experienced team past the first round and make it all the way to the Finals.
With 17 games remaining in the regular season, the Islanders currently stand in fifth place in the Eastern Conference with 82 points. The Isles will be taking on the Rangers and the Capitals one final time in April. These games will be crucial to the standings, especially because they are back-to-back, both on the road and within the final five games of the season. Isles fans need to hope the team can get back their injured warriors and stay healthy throughout the rest of the season and into the playoffs. They cannot afford to fly off the rails and collapse, especially while in such a competitive conference.