Perennial Also-Rans On A Collision Course With A New Reality -- The Playoffs

By Jeff Capellini,

Is this a coming-of-age story?

You’re damn right it is.

What the Islanders have done over the last six weeks is basically force the rest of the NHL to open its eyes and pay attention. They have put together an 11-5-2 run that has thrust them not only into a position of ending their near-six-year playoff drought, but also has seemingly put to bed this long-believed notion that they lack relevance.

And their situation going forward is only going to get better.

Despite the parity that rules the league’s now-very large second tier of championship-hopeful franchises, the Islanders are not going to win the Stanley Cup this season. Only the most ardent homer would be foolish enough to think so, but they are turning into a team no one wants to face. And while they could go through the type of lull over their last nine games that could drop them out of the top eight in the Eastern Conference, they’d really have to fall apart. I don’t expect that to happen because they’ve played what have amounted to playoff games for weeks and have responded on a nightly basis regardless of the opponent or, more importantly considering their earlier struggles, the venue.

Not long ago I wrote a column that was somewhat poorly received because I attempted to explain why the Islanders were performing so horribly on home ice. But it turns out what I was offering was, indeed, something the Isles had no choice but to come to grips with, this truth that sooner or later where games are played shouldn’t matter. A light has to go on and a team has to realize it can be more.

The Isles understand that now. They have pushed the switch into the “on” position.

New York has won its last three at home and has another monster game Tuesday against visiting Philadelphia. The Islanders are two points out of sixth in the conference, a reality that has their success-starved fan base absolutely giddy, and has them now demanding this team not just sneak into the postseason but move up some more. That’s because they still have a realistic shot of jumping over a team or two and, if they are successful, will have a much more favorable matchup in the first round.

And make no mistake, what you have seen from this team since the beginning of March has not been a mirage. The Islanders have played with passion and fearlessness almost every night. They have developed secondary scoring. They have been extremely responsible in their own end and Evgeni Nabokov has played like the All-Star he once was in net.

During the first half of this truncated season the Islanders were basically carried by their top line. Because the defense pairs and goaltending were suspect, how John Tavares, Matt Moulson and Brad Boyes played as a group pretty much dictated how the Islanders fared.

But over the last 18 games, only Tavares has kept up his end of the bargain as far as goal scoring goes, registering 10 to go along with his 15 points. Moulson and Boyes have combined for six goals, and while both have gotten their fair share of assists that line has struggled at times when teams have turned their focus to shadowing Tavares, which has happened more often than not.

Enter the second line, a group that was basically nonexistent during the season’s first half, and the third line, which has provided a spark for a while now when the Islanders have needed one.

Frans Nielsen, who continues to play out of position as the team’s second line center, has 13 points during the 18-game stretch. His linemates, Josh Bailey and Kyle Okposo, have a combined 19 points. And while those numbers are not earth-shattering their point production-to-ice time ratio has jumped dramatically.

The third line of Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Colin McDonald is not going to remind anyone of Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier and Clark Gillies, but they collectively are the true energy line. They work hard on the forecheck and bring an air of nastiness to the proceedings seemingly every shift. Plus, as has been the case for a while now, they each score big goals. Martin’s third-period tally lifted the Isles to a 4-2 win over visiting Tampa Bay on Saturday night.

So while the secondary scoring has improved but is not yet consistent enough for opposing teams to shift their emphasis somewhat away from Tavares, it has provided a major shot in the arm because the Islanders as a whole defensively are like a different team than what we all saw during the season’s first half. The Isles have cut down on shots on goal allowed and have blocked more on a nightly basis, subsequently allowing more than two goals just once over their last eight games. They are 6-1-1 during that stretch, and the one game they did allow three goals they won, in Philadelphia in a shootout.

Another big reason for the cut down in goals allowed has been Nabokov, who is 5-1-1 with a .944 save percentage over his last seven starts. And Nabokov has basically done what he’s done this season without a net, because the Islanders, despite supposedly having good goalie talent on the farm, have no one of any significance to step in should the 37-year-old get injured.

The bottom line with the Islanders, regardless of the fact that they stood pat at the trade deadline, is they are ready to not only make the playoffs, but perhaps win a round depending on the opponent. At this point only Pittsburgh and Boston, in my eyes, provide matchups the Isles cannot handle over a long series, but I’d give them a good chance against anyone else in the East in the first round.

And looking even further into the future, there’s this widely held belief that owner Charles Wang won’t start spending meaningful money until the team moves to Brooklyn after the 2014-15 season. All I can say to that is don’t believe everything you hear. People I’ve spoken to who have a better understanding of the team’s front office mindset than most media members and diehard fans have told me the Isles are in a position to make a lot of noise this summer.

They are one of just a handful of teams with massive cap space. Many teams will have a hard time adding salary because they are already pushing the cap ceiling with the cap itself scheduled to drop from $70 million to $64 million for the 2013-14 season.

Despite everything you have been socialized to believe about Wang and his losing money, he knows the Islanders have the potential to hit the ground running in Brooklyn and be a force. So, it is very possible he could green-light general manager Garth Snow to loosen the purse strings and add some payroll. How much and who the team could target is still open to debate, but to expect this team to come back as is next year, or with kids taking over for veterans who are now in the last year of their contracts is playing by the old rules.

Expect the Islanders to be more active this summer than you’ve seen in years. Expect them to find an upgrade for Boyes on the top line, to perhaps spend or trade their way to acquiring a solid stay-at-home defenseman and to add more help in net. And for those wondering about all the talent the Isles have at Bridgeport, expect those players to get shots to make the club next fall, but don’t expect there to be as many open slots as was figured to be the case before.

Has the youth movement worked? To a degree, yes, but I’d be remiss to say the draft has been the sole reason for the Islanders being where they are now. Veterans and excellent waiver wire acquisitions by Snow have definitely played their part, and more veterans not currently in the organization will continue the upward trend next season.

But for now, as far as making the playoffs goes, the Islanders are playing like a team destined to qualify. They’ve stayed their course both on the ice and in the front office. They’ve turned a cap floor blueprint into a model that can work in today’s age of professional sports free-for-all spending.

The Islanders are on a righteous path of sorts. They are what they are, which is a lot more than many thought they’d be.

Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet

Do you think the Islanders will make playoffs? And if so, where will they finish? Please offer your thoughts in the comments section below …

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