The New York Islanders are on hard times, so to speak.
They’ve fallen out of the Metropolitan Division lead for the first time in months, since passed up by the New York Rangers, a team that seems set to never lose again. Before Tuesday’s loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, the Islanders had lost three straight and six of ten (4-4-2), and an injury has the recently re-signed and maybe best-overall defender on the team Nick Leddy on the shelf until about the end of the month.
The playoffs are in no danger. New York has already eclipsed 90 points with 10 games remaining. However, things are slipping a bit with the playoffs just a month away.
Is the dip in play a real cause for concern, or just one of those things?
Just one of those things, by the way, would be the inevitable rough stretch that every good team in every NHL season encounters despite what is otherwise good play.
As of Monday morning, the Rangers, Montreal Canadiens and Anaheim Ducks are tied for the NHL lead in points. The Rangers were just about a .500 team until December, and the Ducks have endured three separate three-game losing streaks this year (including a 1-1-5 run in early November). So even the best teams have trouble, and it’s completely natural given the unreal marathon that is the NHL regular season.
But we know the Ducks and Rangers are good because they’ve been good for awhile. The Ducks are the reigning President’s Trophy winners, the Rangers last year’s East participants in the Stanley Cup Final. They were both bounced from the postseason by the Los Angeles Kings, also known to have been very good for some time.
The Islanders, by comparison, have no such track record.
Last year’s team finished last in the Metropolitan. They’ve made the postseason just once since 2007, in the lockout-shortened 2013 year. Seven of the team’s starters weren’t with the club at all last year, while several others were getting their first, limited taste of NHL action. The roster is in some ways as unfamiliar as the success it’s been met with this season.
However, in the vacuum of the 2014-15 season, the last ten games are the outlier. Counting the current skid, New York has lost three straight for the fourth separate time this year. The next time they lose four straight will be the first.
But go beyond this season, and this is still a largely unproven (if promising) squad.
So the hard thing to figure out with these Islanders is whether a sustained rough patch is indicative of the way the team should be playing — they’ve been great this season but so suddenly great compared to so, so bad last year that you have to think their initial success was in some way lucky and unsustainable — or if it’s just the sort of thing that every team goes through in every season.
The Nashville Predators, essentially serving as the Islanders’ Western Conference avatar in terms of Oh Wow They Are Good This Year, are going through the same thing. Nashville has lost eight of its last ten and fallen out of first in the Central. Is that skid a regression to the mean of a team that finished well outside the postseason a year ago? Or is it a rough patch for a team that has consistently ranked among the league’s best teams in even-strength scoring and goal prevention all year long?
The Islanders are facing a similar conundrum. Is this team able to keep up its three-plus goals per game pace into the postseason, when goal scoring and power plays wilt even further from what are already cap-era lows?
Within the context of this year, the Islanders’ problems at least look correctable. The team has scored one goal in three straight games, an aberration compared to their third-ranked offense. Leddy’s injury certainly set the team back, given that he has been their best all-around defender this year.
As the postseason approaches, it’s going to be tougher for that offense to carry what is one of the league’s worst defensive units at even-strength (.912 team save percentage ranks 24th overall) and especially on the penalty kill (77 percent on the year).
But a fall off the cliff, from three-plus goals per game to something in the range of their current skid, looks more like a blip than a trend.
Even in the climate of clutch-and-grab, Let the Boys Play NHL, the Islanders aren’t going to be held to a goal a game for long. What’s most important is that they continue to drive play at a rate that can cover for their goal-stopping deficiencies and, though unevenly, they’ve still mostly done that even in the current losing stretch.
The Islanders are still too new to this whole win a lot of games thing to really decide if this is an uncharacteristically good year (like last year’s Avalanche) or if their offense is just waiting on a middle-of-the-pack defense to help complete what could top out at being a legitimately league-best club.
Excepting that last year’s club was undone by near-league-worst goaltending and significant injuries, this teams look to be closer to its playoff-reaching 2013 self than the scrub teams of the last decade.
As rough as things have been of late, the Islanders should be able to right their ship in short order.