Against all odds – or at least most of them – the Islanders haven’t just hung in the playoff race since dynamic forward Mathew Barzal was injured, they’ve risen. It was nearly a month ago, on February 18, that the Islanders were crushed 6-2 by the Bruins and Barzal lost for weeks with a lower body injury.
Wednesday’s 6-3 win in Anaheim put the Islanders at 7-3-1 without Barzal in the lineup, and they remain in the second wildcard position as of Friday morning. They are level on points with the Penguins on 78 points despite Pittsburgh having two games in hand.
Exactly when Barzal will return – if he returns at all – is still unclear. He’s not on the Islanders’ three-game road trip to California, which ends Saturday in San Jose, and coach Lane Lambert declined to offer any sort of update ahead of Wednesday’s Ducks game.
Separately, a franchise-changing trade for top-line center Bo Horvat on Jan. 31 showed the organization appreciates entering the tournament this season after missing out on 2022. Horvat has been cooling off offensively lately with just one goal in his last 10 games. but it was perhaps the most important key to keeping the islanders afloat in the immediate aftermath of the loss of Barzal. Of late, it’s been another newcomer, Pierre Engvall, who has added some important secondary goals after being signed from Toronto on February 28.
Most importantly, the Islanders have been tightening defensively, particularly in recent weeks, and with a goalie like Ilya Sorokin at the net, it seems their goal is to play low-event hockey while getting just enough offense to score win. In his last nine games, Sorokin is 6-2-1 with a .930 save percentage and averaging 2.22 goals against.
It’s not always pretty hockey. And it’s not always effective, as evidenced by back-to-back losses to the Capitals and Kings earlier this week, in which the Islanders only managed three goals. It’s also hard to imagine that they would put up a major fight against the mighty Bruins if they made it to the playoffs as the second wildcard team.
But that’s a possible worry for another day. Right now the islanders are just trying to get in and they seem to have found a recipe that can get them there if they can sustain it. Let’s take a closer look at their chances with 12 games remaining with an analysis of a little The Athletics Dom Luszczyszyn, whose latest update reflects games through Wednesday, has a 45 percent chance for the Islanders to qualify for the playoffs.
strength of the schedule
Dom: The islanders don’t have a particularly scary timeline for the future. Half of their games are at home and they play against a 90-point team on average. The Islanders are favorites in only five of the 12 games, but they are also stronger favorites in those games than in the other seven underdogs. The bottom line is that the team is expected to score 14 points, a pace of 95.7 points that falls midway between their current pace (92 points) and what the model expects of them (98-point talent team).
That’s enough to make them essentially a 50-50 shot — the model expects more from Florida — but a lot will depend on three games specifically versus two teams in contention (more on that below).
Short: The phrase “must win” gets thrown around a little too often this time of year, but the Islanders really had to find a way to get those two points against the Ducks on Wednesday. And while a win over one of the league’s worst teams might not be much to celebrate, the Islanders were still playing their second straight and trailing about halftime, although they controlled the game for the duration. But they stuck to that.
Saturday’s game against the Sharks is another where they simply need to find a way to get the two points and with a few days off before then they should be plenty energetic and healthy. They’ll also enjoy another two-day break before taking on the Maple Leafs next Tuesday in what is usually a tough game, first back after a West Coast road trip (and a three-hour time difference). I think they need to hold some sort of cushion ahead of that three-game road trip to Washington, Tampa Bay, and Carolina, which isn’t going to be easy.
It’s worth noting that an early problem the islanders seemed to struggle with was downplaying their competition. However, their record against teams in the playoffs and not in the playoffs has stabilized recently: they are a near-identical 17-14-4 against teams currently in the playoffs and 18-13-4 against teams who aren’t.
Head-to-head matches are key
Dom: The Islanders play Buffalo on March 25th and then Washington on March 29th and April 10th. Those games alone have about 25 percentage points of playoff leverage either way, meaning what happens there could mean the difference between the Islanders being a safe bet at 72 percent or a long shot at 11 percent. Huge difference.
Part of that is just knowing that the Islanders have three guaranteed wins or losses on the bench, but opponents are important here, too, as both Washington and Buffalo still have a slice of the playoff pie. Right now, those two teams have a 12 percent combined chance, and a sweep by the Islanders could spell goodbye those teams’ chances. These teams need to beat the team they’re chasing to stand a chance, and losses would drop their collective odds to three percent. On the other hand, the Islanders, losing all three, would open the door for Washington and Buffalo, giving the two teams a combined 29 percent chance.
At a minimum, the islanders must win two of those three games – preferably three. Otherwise, they’re just doing the Panthers a huge favor.
Short: You know that pre-season cliché that points are as important in October as points are in March? That’s especially true in this case, as the Islanders and Panthers met twice on October 13 in the season opener at the UBS Arena and on October 23 at Sunrise. The Panthers won those two games in regular form, 3-1 in the first and 3-2 in the second. The Islanders reclaimed a few of those points going 5-1 at home on Dec. 27, but the Panthers still won the season series.
The Islanders defeated Buffalo 3-2 in their last meeting on March 7 in a game that still stands as the biggest of the season. It took a comeback in the third period, but the Islanders were the better team and deserved to win that game. That win, perhaps more than any other performance this season, seemed to indicate this is an experienced group who can rely on past experience to give them an advantage on track.
“I think our group is a confident group that has done some good things in the past,” Brock Nelson said this week. “We’ve played well in a period that’s important to us lately. Guys have been through different scenarios, maybe on different teams in similar positions and have been able to succeed. I want to draw on that positively and use these advances to help us.
Kyle Palmieri has been on a playoff-qualified team six times in the last 12 seasons of his career.
“I think if you’ve been through this before and been in a similar position, if you’re chasing a wild card spot, you have to (have to realize) that you’re not going to win every game. When one slips away, like they did against Washington, you can’t sit and think about it and think, ‘Oh boy, if this team wins, they’re going to be that much closer’ and things like that. You focus on yourself and try to prepare for the next game.”
Will that kind of experience help push them across the border? It still seems like a toss up as the numbers reflect.
(Photo: Kiyoshi Mio / USA TODAY Sports)