Everywhere around the Nassau Coliseum, there has been talk of the Islanders making some kind of a playoff run. After Saturday night’s win over the Hurricanes, players and members of the media alike were quick to mention that the Isles were just six points behind the Maple Leafs for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and had a game in hand.
But Monday’s embarrassing 6-0 loss to the Ottawa Senators at the Nassau Coliseum reminded Islanders fans and most observers that the biggest obstacle the Isles have standing in their way as we get closer to the trade deadline and the playoff stretch drive is this: the team just doesn’t play consistently good hockey.
The past few weeks have seen the Islanders have plenty of opportunities to make up ground in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Yet each time the chance has presented itself, the Isles have lost critical games that they needed to win.
Just a few recent examples include a home and home match-up with the Maple Leafs January 23 and 24. The Isles were coming off a three-game winning streak that included a shutout road win against the potent Capitals offense and a rare win in Philadelphia. If ever there was momentum to build on, this was it. If the Isles could even get three out of four points in the two games with the Leafs, they could close the gap on eighth place and really get on a roll for the stretch drive. It didn’t happen. Toronto shutout the Islanders at the Air Canada Center 3-0 on Monday night. The following evening at the Coliseum, the Islanders took a 2-0 lead into the final minutes of the second period but ended up losing the game 4-3 in overtime to the team they needed to catch to reach a playoff berth.
In early February, the Islanders had four-of-five games at home and they were again facing the teams that were in the hunt for the final playoff berth with them like the Sabres, Canadiens and Panthers. The results: 1-2-1 in the four home games with a 1-0 shootout win in Philadelphia thrown in between it. If the Isles are a legitimate playoff contender, they need to win home games against teams like Buffalo, Montreal and Florida and dispatch a struggling Kings team that is fighting for its playoff life in the Western Conference. To lose three of the four home games just killed any momentum the club had going for it entering this stretch.
The good news is that despite this maddening inconsistency, the Isles are not losing so many games in a row that they fall out of the playoff race. And while other teams have ebbed and flowed, no other team has stepped up and run away with the final spots in the Eastern Conference either.
Saturday’s win over Carolina again provided a glimmer of hope that the Islanders were ready to make a run. But today’s holiday matinee against Ottawa, another club fighting for one of the final playoff spots, dispelled the notion that the Isles are playoff ready. The game was over in the first 1:35 when the Senators scored two quick goals in the first five shots on net against Kevin Poulin. The slow start was bothersome, but even more disturbing was the lack of effort the Isles showed for the remaining 58:25 of the contest, never really offering any challenge to the visiting Sens who coasted to an easy victory.
“At this time of the year you need physicality,” Coach Jack Capuano admitted. “You have to pay the price. I’ll never ask anybody to fight but we weren’t physical enough. We need an injection in our lineup, we need something to happen here. We can’t have the emotion that we had on the bench here tonight.”
Captain Mark Streit agreed with his coach. “There wasn’t any intensity in our game,” he said. “We can’t start a game like that, down two goals right away. We didn’t find a way to respond and get back in the game.”
The Islanders remain only six points behind the Maple Leafs in the Eastern Conference, although they no longer have a game in hand. The problem is not just being three games behind Toronto with 23 games remaining on the schedule, but that there are three other teams the Isles must pass to reach the postseason [Winnipeg, Washington and Tampa Bay] and three other teams who are within three points of the Islanders in the standings [Montreal, Buffalo and Carolina] who they must also stay ahead of to qualify for the playoffs.
That is a tall order, especially for a young and inexperienced team like the Islanders who remain maddeningly inconsistent. Unless the Isles can put together a solid streak where they win seven or eight out of 10, they will have difficulty gaining ground in the standings. They have even less of a chance to pick up ground if they don’t beat the teams they are fighting for the playoffs.
Tuesday, the Isles travel to Buffalo to take on the Sabres,another team they are battling for position with in the standings. Then they face the rival Rangers at the Coliseum Friday night and travel to Ottawa Sunday. Those are the final three games before the trading deadline. If GM Garth Snow is going to be a buyer at this late date, the Islanders need to pick up at least four-of-six points in these final three games to show Snow they have a chance to make a run this season.
Thus far, chance after chance has passed without the Islanders being able to convert them into a consistent winning streak. They simply cannot allow any more of these chances to slip away or they will quickly run out of chances.