By Jeff Capellini, WFAN.com
The Islanders have their bags packed.
No, not their golf bags, though I wouldn’t blame you for taking one last parting shot.
Usually, this time of the year is reserved for getting the best tee times possible at some of the Tri-State Area’s best courses. Lord knows we have enough places to shoot 18, or 36, depending on availability. The Islanders know this better than anyone. Six long years of imagining what the playoffs must feel like while analyzing swing planes and working on short games.
But all that is about to change, provided the Isles don’t forget just how good they can be on the road.
In case you have been living under a rock for a while now, the Isles have been arguably one of the best teams in the NHL over the latter half of this lockout-shortened season. Their stellar play since March 1 has been as surprising as anything I’ve seen from a New York City-area professional sports franchise in some time.
Now while some would say it was just a matter of time before this team had its resurgence and emerged from the darkness of dysfunction, rebuilding and more dysfunction and rebuilding, it would be hard to convince anyone who paid attention to the season’s first half that this type of finish was even remotely possible.
Sure, the Isles peddled along as a near-.500 team showing glimpses of promise, but they never really got going over the season’s first 20 games. Repeated blown third-period leads, horrific failures on home ice and a lack of secondary scoring resulted in an 8-11-1 start that actually looked a lot worse than their record indicated, considering this team’s talent.
It felt like a .500 season at best. It was destined to be around a 10th-place finish in the Eastern Conference, things this franchise’s fan base had become used to.
The one saving grace the Islanders had was, for whatever reason, they treated the road like salvation, a place to go and forget about all their problems. They won six of their first 10 road games, playing the type of hockey that inspired their fans to believe that maybe, just maybe, if they could block out whatever it was that messed with their heads at home they could make something out of this season.
Since March 3, the Islanders have done just that, going 14-5-3, including grabbing 20 of a possible 24 points over their last dozen games. They now protect leads over the final 20 minutes, they finished the home portion of their schedule on a 5-0-1 tear, and now everyone but John Tavares is putting the puck in the net.
I wouldn’t get too concerned with Tavares’ current three-game points slump. He’s been as involved with the pressure the Islanders have been creating as he was before. He’s just hit a bit of a wall, mostly due to opponents paying more attention to the top line than usual.
But, that said, and I actually can’t believe I’m saying it, the Islanders haven’t really needed Tavares to be Tavares, not when Josh Bailey, Kyle Okposo, Michael Grabner, the entire third line and defenseman after defenseman are scoring goals and creating chances at the rate they all are.
The Islanders look dominant these days. They approach every shift with an urgency and intensity that hasn’t been seen in literally years. They have owned the puck in the offensive end with their relentless cycling. They’ve dominated the neutral zone, creating turnover after turnover. They’ve been as responsible as any team you can name in their own end, allowing two goals or less in nine straight games and 11 of their last 12. And when the defense has cracked somewhat, goaltender Evgeni Nabokov has been basically impenetrable.
It has been amazing to watch, the transformation from mediocre at best with the possibility of better things to come to realizing every bit of their potential in every facet of the game.
But all that said, there is work still left to do. The Isles sit in seventh place in the East, one point behind Ottawa and three ahead of the Rangers and Winnipeg. The Senators and Blue Shirts also have a game in hand. A great start to their season-ending road trip will almost assuredly put the Islanders in the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
New York opens in Toronto on Thursday. The Maple Leafs are in fifth place, four points ahead of the Isles. Now while I think catching Toronto would be asking a lot, their matchup at the Air Canada Centre is a four-point game. The Isles need two points, but if they can manage just one, great. Take it and move on.
On Saturday, coach Jack Capuano’s bunch travels to Winnipeg for a meeting that could, if the Isles play their cards right, severely hamper any chance the Jets would have of catching them the rest of the way. The Isles suffered a brutal 5-4 overtime loss at Winnipeg back in late January, blowing a two-goal third-period lead in the final 10 minutes. New York got revenge on April 2, winning 5-2 at home.
Ideally, the Islanders want a minimum of three points from those two games, but if they can get two I’m sure they won’t be disappointed. That said, though, it’s time to leave nothing to chance for they close the regular season at Carolina, Philadelphia and Buffalo next week, three teams that likely won’t be playing for anything but pride, but certainly will empty whatever it is they have left in their respective tanks.
Following the Islanders’ 1-0 overtime loss to the Rangers on Saturday there was a bit of concern over how they would react, but they ended up doing what all good teams do — they beat a team they were supposed to beat, Florida 5-2 on Tuesday, putting to bed any worries of falling victim in a trap game. Now they just have to stay the course, a familiar theme over the last several years, but one that now holds meaning beyond showing patience in a rebuild.
It’s time for the Islanders to close.
They’ve already shown they can be a freight train. Now it’s time to blow the yellow, green and red logs and get this blue and orange choo choo up to 88 mph, so they can warp back to a time they’ve been so determined to reach — meaningful spring hockey with an eye on extending their turnaround. They need to remain cognizant of the fact that no matter how they finish this season their future has not been written yet, something that hasn’t always been the case.
The Islanders are relevant again. They are a team that has followed a plan through thick and thin, regardless of the road blocks that have popped up or all the detractors that doubted a true low-budget and draft-infused rebuild could work in today’s age of spend-or-bust team construction. They’ll have a new home soon and a new measure of respect from opponents every time they take the ice for the very reason that a franchise with a plan is always more dangerous long-term than one that makes things up on the fly.
There’s plenty of time to play golf. Why not do it in June? The Islanders now seem destined to do their early spring gripping and ripping on the ice.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet
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