The Best Playoffs In Sports are almost here. The NHL postseason is just a few weeks away, and some surprising new contenders have carried their newfound success from the beginning of the year to now, when they can just about put their names on the bracket.
We’re still not going to count the somehow-currently-playoff-seeded Calgary Try-Hards among that group (come on, no team getting so routinely outshot is getting out of the first round with anything more than maybe a win and some attaboys).
Instead, let’s talk about what the New York Islanders and Nashville Predators have done since the start of the year.
And, more to the point, about what they haven’t done since the trade deadline, which is what they did for most of the season prior to that, which was to win.
Nashville suffered a solid losing spell this month, dropping six straight from late February to early March while falling back to the pack in the Central Division. Since then, they’ve reeled off points in seven of their last ten to retake the division lead and seal a playoff berth.
Like Nashville, the Islanders have spent more of this season than really anyone predicted leading their division, their conference, or both. And, like Nashville, the Isles have had a miserable go of it in the last month, posting just four wins in 13 March games to fall off the pace in the East and as far as third place in the Metropolitan Division.
With only five games left on the regular season schedule (fewer than the Penguins, Capitals and Rangers, the three division opponents ostensibly competing with the Islanders for superior playoff seeding), New York would do well to gather some points before hitting hockey’s second season for just the third time in a decade.
Do they need a Predators-style rebound to set themselves up for the postseason? Sure, why not. Even if only to help gather home-ice in their final tour through Nassau Coliseum.
With 95 points in 77 games (45-27-5), the Islanders are certainly almost definitely a playoff team, for sure. They’ve got a six-point cushion on the eighth-place Boston Bruins and a nine-point edge on the ninth-place Ottawa Senators, who have played the same 75 games as the Isles. The Isles’ magic number to clinch a playoff berth is three wins in five games, only one of said games set to come against a currently-seeded playoff opponent (the Penguins).
That doesn’t mean things haven’t gone sideways on Long Island.
Since the trade deadline (in which New York was mostly quiet, acquiring a depth forward in Tyler Kennedy and backup goaltender Michal Neuvirth), the Islanders have won only four games, at 4-6-3 for the month. They’ve been outscored 34-30 in those games, averaging just 2.3 goals per game this month after posting better than three per game for the season as a whole. That mark includes a run of four straight games in which John Tavares‘ high-scoring squad managed just four total goals, all losses.
While an injury to top defenseman Nick Leddy certainly hampered efforts along the blueline, a league-wide dearth of scoring and scoring chances has certainly hurt New York, which relies on its offensive attack to generate wins in spite of so-so (at best) goals against numbers.
Since running off four straight wins in mid-February, at which point the Isles handily led the division and were jockeying for first place in the Eastern Conference, New York has gone 8-9-4 in its last 21 contests.
And while Pittsburgh and Washington have also suffered middling stretch runs of their own, both have closed the gap on the upstart Isles, threatening to push New York out of home-ice in the first round and perhaps into a Wild Card spot by the time the playoffs start.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that the playoffs are almost certainly happening in some form or another. They’re at 99.9 percent to reach the postseason, with a magic number of just three wins as of Tuesday morning. Not bad for a last-place lottery team only a year ago.
So missing the playoffs, at this point, is the nuclear outcome. But doing so is also as likely as getting struck by the lottery, so let’s assume they’re in and the only battles left are for seeding and the ever-critical Momentum and Confidence.
Winning is good, and better than losing. That’s true for every team not Sabres’ing its way into the pole position of hockey’s laughable amateur draft lottery. But teams need not win every game down the stretch to propel themselves into a successful postseason.
The last five Cup winners have had mixed results in the stretch runs of their championship seasons, proving that it’s not necessary to cruise through the April tune-up in order to Have Momentum and Be Confident heading into the dance.
Cup Winners Since 2010
2014 Kings || 2-2-2 in six April games
2013 Hawks || lost three of final five games (2-2-1)
2012 Kings || lost five of final eight games (3-2-3)
2011 Bruins || 3-2-0 in April, 6-3-1 in final ten games
2010 Hawks || 5-0-1 in April
In the last five years, only the Chicago Blackhawks have hit the postseason with any kind of significant momentum. They won 10 of their final 14 games in the lockout-shortened 2013 season (despite slowing a bit in the final five), as well as five of their final six in 2010.
Elsewhere, the Bruins in 2011 and the Kings in both of their Cup seasons were only mediocre down the stretch run. Not that that was to the detriment of their playoff chances. Obviously.
New York has certainly stumbled of late. Playoff seeding isn’t always critical. The 2012 Kings won four series in which they were the lower-seeded opponent. But a better seed can’t hurt. Not with the atmosphere that’s sure to take shape in the final postseason at Nassau.
The Islanders’ final five games will be critical to their chances of attaining home ice and avoiding the Wild Card. Short of that, there’s no real need to a team to hit the postseason on a high note. Not if recent Cup winners are any indication.
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