The injuries keep mounting and observers talk about the “benefits” of sinking lower in the standings to get a better match-up in the playoffs, but the Islanders are still going to do the right thing as the season approaches its final weekend: trying to win hockey games.
A week ago, the Islanders lost an embarrassing 5-0 game to the Pittsburgh Penguins at Barclays and the team’s fans were panicked thinking about how flat they played and how long it had been since the team put together a complete, 60-minute performance. What a difference a seven days make. The Islanders turned their play around and beat three playoff contenders in a row: the Lightning, Capitals and Rangers. They not only won, they did so in convincing form.
With two games left, the Islanders know a lot about their playoff future. They cannot have home ice advantage in the opening round of the playoffs as Pittsburgh has locked down second place in the Metropolitan Division. If the Isles finish in third place, ahead of the Rangers, they will face the red-hot Penguins to open the postseason. If the Isles finish behind the Rangers in the standings, they will face the winner of the Atlantic Division, most likely the Florida Panthers.
While some fans and experts suspect the Panthers are the more favorable match-up, the Islanders remain dedicated to playing their best hockey and entering the postseason on a high note.
“It’s a huge part of being in the playoffs,” said forward Shane Prince who had a goal and an assist against the Rangers Thursday night. “You’ve got to be rolling. You don’t want to go in losing a few. We want to get a couple of more wins and go into the playoffs on a roll.”
Forward Josh Bailey agreed. “We want to hit our stride come playoff time and we just want to keep pushing…You want to be hitting your stride come playoff time and have everyone playing with confidence and have that team confidence as well.”
So the Islanders intend to continue to play to win and enter the playoffs playing the best hockey they can. That is the right move given the big shift in the atmosphere around the team since they won their last three games and started playing consistent hockey again. If they don’t continue to play well for a full 60 minutes, they won’t last long in the playoffs no matter who their opponent is.
“The guys are playing hard. I think that we went through a stretch where we lost our identity a little bit and how we wanted to play and we had some injuries in this stretch but guys have stepped up, they’ve played the right way,” head coach Jack Capuano said. “If you’re going to win, you need to play within the framework we need to play with and you’ve got to compete at a high level and I think our guys have done that.”
Veteran center Frans Nielsen agreed that the team needed to keep pressing forward and trying to win. “It shows when we play the right way we can beat some good teams,” he said when asked about his team’s improved play. “I like where we’re at right now. We’ve got some injuries but guys are coming in the lineup and playing great. When we play the right way we’re a tough team to beat and that’s what we’re showing teams right now.”
Injuries are obviously a big issue for the team as the season comes to a close. The Islanders are without several key players including starting goalie Jaroslav Halak, highly-regarded defenseman Travis Hamonic and now forward Anders Lee.
Other players are a bit banged out and can benefit from a few days off before the start of the postseason. Head coach Jack Capuano indicated he would not hesitate to rest players who need it while continuing to try to win games. “The one thing we’re going to look at is the health of our team,” Capuano said after the win over the Rangers. “Matty Martin was a scratch. Clutterbuck’s been hurt. Guys that need the time, we have to give it to them so they’re ready to go. But besides that, we’re going to dress a lineup and we’re going to compete at a high level so that we can win hockey games.”
So the plan for the Isles is to rest the guys that need a little time off, but to keep trying to win hockey games over the final weekend of the season. It all builds up to the start of the playoffs next week against either the Penguins or the winner of the Atlantic Division.
“We still have two games left in the season,” center Casey Cizikas said. “We still have a lot of work left to be where we want to be and play the type of style we want to play. We just have to take it game by game and when it’s time to get ready for playoffs, that’s when we’ll start gearing down. We know how hard it is to win a series. We came so close last year but it didn’t come out the way we wanted to in Game 7 to finish things off. But we’re hungry now and we know how hard it’s going to be to win four games just to get through so we’re going to do whatever it takes.”