By Daniel Friedman
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As we approach the final days of 2013, we find the New York Islanders in a rather precarious spot.

It’s pretty astonishing that a year that began with such promise will end with such disappointment. Name me another professional sports franchise that’s experienced the kind of ups and downs the Islanders have over the past 365 days. I double-dare you.

The Islanders surged through February and March, reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2007. However, a lot has changed since that short-lived meteoric rise. They’ve given John Tavares the captaincy, traded Matt Moulson for Thomas Vanek and seen Lubomir Visnovsky suffer a concussion that he has yet to recover from.

Put in simpler terms, they’ve gone into a reverse free-fall in a matter of months. As of right now, they’re the 28th-best team in the NHL (otherwise known as third-worst).

It’s very easy to suggest that perhaps last season was merely a fluke, that the Islanders were simply never that good of a hockey team. Truthfully, I don’t see it. There have been too many signs that they’re significantly better than they appear to be on the surface.

They’re 3-2-2 over the past seven games and have picked up points in five of those games, but they’ve only won eight other games this season and have points in just 18 of the 38 they’ve played.

They’ve had a chance to win or pick up a point in 28 of those 38 games, but they’ve blown 10 third-period leads and therefore have points in just 18 of those contests.

They currently boast the deepest offense they’ve had in years, but only six teams have scored less goals.

They’ve gotten strong goaltending from Evgeni Nabokov and Kevin Poulin, but they’ve been horrendous defensively, essentially negating the efforts of their two netminders.

Now, there will always be pessimists within a fan base and surely they’ll tell you they saw this coming. But anyone who thinks about the game logically knows the Islanders shouldn’t have sunk this low.

Even if you envisioned a decline, you cannot tell me you really felt the situation would be as dire as it’s been.

Tampa Bay Lightning star Martin St. Louis said it best, when his team came into Nassau Coliseum to face the Islanders: “They’re a much better team than their record. For some reason, they are where they are, but this is not a team you can take lightly.”

Whether you think the Isles are a bad team or they’re a good team that’s been bad, the bottom line is they haven’t performed. They’ve yet to find any sort of consistency and rarely have they fired on all cylinders.

Certainly, the players bear most of the blame. That having been said, Jack Capuano hasn’t helped much and Garth Snow isn’t innocent here, either.

But amidst all of the negativity and all of the losing, there have been bright spots, particularly of late. Over the past few weeks, the Islanders have beaten three quality opponents in the Rangers — don’t let their record fool you either, they’re a better team as well — Sharks and Red Wings.

In the five games he’s played since returning to the lineup, Nabokov has posted a 1.96 goals-against average and a 2-1-2 record. He’s now giving the Isles the type of goaltending that helped them get into the postseason back in April.

Josh Bailey has three points in his last three games, while Michael Grabner has four points in his last four matches. Their slumps were well-documented, but I don’t think either player was nearly as “invisible” as people felt because they contribute in other ways.

Peter Regin’s been invisible. Bailey and Grabner have not.

Of course their inconsistency is frustrating, but any talk of trading these guys is just too premature. Remember when everyone and their next-door neighbor demanded that Snow trade Kyle Okposo? Unsurprisingly, that would’ve been an incredibly dumb move.

The Islanders are nine points out of a playoff spot. But their conference and division will get tougher as other teams work out their kinks. It’s probably going to require around 90 points to get in, and that would mean the Isles need to pick up at least 61 of a possible 88 points over their remaining 44 skirmishes.

A tall order? No question. If the team can’t cut that deficit to five or six points by the time the Sochi Olympics roll around, their season will likely be over.

Should the Isles fail to clinch a playoff spot, it won’t be because they weren’t good enough or because they were completely devoid of talent. It’ll be because they didn’t play at the higher level they’re capable of.

Bad teams don’t blow 10 third-period leads in a 38-game span. Bad teams are outmatched for 60 minutes and virtually on a nightly basis. With the Islanders, that has not been the case. Most of their losses have resulted from their own mistakes, not from being overwhelmed by their opponents.

Their blue line has been abysmal and could use some reinforcements, but it should never have been this brutal. A lot of these defensive lapses have been fundamental errors.

Heading into 2014, the goal should be to finish the season strong, regardless of whether or not that leads to a playoff berth. Tanking does nothing for a team that’s trying to shed its “rebuild” tag or find confidence in the locker room.

It’s obvious the Isles are talented, but it’ll go to waste if they can’t figure out a way to start winning more hockey games. Judging by their play before the holiday break, it would seem they’ve gotten the message.

We know who the real New York Islanders are, but can they play like ’em?

We’re going to find out.

Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter @DFriedmanOnNYI.

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