By Daniel Friedman
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The Islanders have looked pretty good this season, the last couple of weeks notwithstanding.READ MORE: NYPD: 5 People Hospitalized After Police-Involved Shooting In Upper Manhattan
Lately, it’s been more of a rough go. They have lost a season-high four consecutive games, scoring just four goals in the process. The slide has coincided with injuries to Mikhail Grabovski, Nick Leddy, Lubomir Visnovsky and Jaroslav Halak.
There’s a sense of panic among the fans, and given everything they’ve been through the past few decades, it’s basically a reflex at this point. Though it’s understandable, I think it’s a bit overdone.
The season isn’t over. The Isles aren’t missing the playoffs. They’re not the same team they’ve always been and their ability to score in bunches for most of the season wasn’t a fluke.
What we have here is a classic case of a young team hitting a wall, facing some more adversity and trying to learn (often the hard way) what it takes to get past it. The Islanders are finding out that if they want to beat teams like the Rangers in the playoffs, they’re going to have to step it up a notch or two.
These games late in the season always have a playoff feel to them. The fact of the matter is the Isles’ struggles coincide with that increased intensity – they just have not been able to respond when the games have become tighter, more physical and with better opposing goaltending. There’s something to be gleaned from the losses to teams like the Rangers, Canadiens and Blackhawks, teams a lot more experienced than the Islanders.
It’s not uncommon for a young group to hit a rut, but, again, it’s something the Isles will have to overcome if they’re to take the next step. That’s on the players, and it’s on the veteran leaders in that locker room (and there are plenty) to guide the rest.
But it’s also on the coaches. They might not be the ones failing to score on the power play or the ones turning the puck over and causing an odd-man rush, but they are still somewhat responsible for how the team executes the game plan on the ice.
Head coach Jack Capuano has done some real nice things with the Islanders, and he’s done some real questionable things. Recently, it’s been more of the latter. The same can be said for assistant Doug Weight, who I like, but something’s gotta give here. There are issues that need to be fixed as far as Xs and Os are concerned, and it’s up to the coaching staff to do so between now and the start of the postseason.
Should the Isles get bounced early on, say, in the first round by a team like Pittsburgh, I think you have to look behind the bench and consider a change – not necessarily because everything is Capuano’s fault, but because at a certain point he’s either helping or he isn’t.
That’s a conversation for May or June, should the Islanders be on their respective living room couches by then, not for right now. But it’s something to keep in mind depending on how things go. Regardless, the coach has his work cut out for him here.
Do I think the Islanders will average a goal-per-game for the rest of the season? No, I don’t. Do I think they have absolutely no shot at getting out of the first round? No, I don’t. In fact, I think they still have a very good shot at beating the Penguins, should they draw Pittsburgh.READ MORE: Prisoner Escapes From Custody At Bellevue Hospital
Do they have questions to answer between now and then? You better believe they do.
These are all solvable issues, and the reality is the Isles have been an excellent offensive team for the majority of the season. I’m not about to look at a four-game stretch and say “this is the real them.” It’s a version of them that needs to be thrown in a furnace and never seen again, but it’s not the real them.
And there have even been some positives. Defensively, I think they’ve been pretty good lately. A couple of miscues here and there, but that’s perfectly normal. Other than Tuesday night’s 4-1 loss in Chicago, they had given up two, two and three (two, plus an empty netter) goals in their other three losses.
Despite a couple of softies, the goaltending has been very solid as well. If you’re going to criticize Halak and Michal Neuvirth for the bad goals, you also have to recognize the big saves they make, and there have been plenty over the last several games.
Say whatever you will about him, but Neuvirth has been solid, and he’s not the reason they’ve been losing. Halak is not the reason, either.
Even the penalty kill, which has been abysmal all year long, has been impressive of late. For those keeping score at home, the Isles have actually moved up to 28th (from dead last) and now have a 77.2 percent success rate. Those aren’t impressive numbers as far as the overall picture goes, but as long as the unit continues to perform as it has of late, the Isles will be all right.
Ultimately, it all comes back to scoring goals, or a complete lack thereof. Whether the Islanders lose 1-0 or 3-0, they’ve still lost. There’s been no run support whatsoever.
It’s time for the Islanders to dig deep, learn from this slide, and turn it into a positive going forward. There’s about a month between now and the start of the playoffs, which is time enough to set things back in order.
Winning the Metropolitan Division is not the priority now. The priority is getting back on track and, even more importantly, getting healthy. Those two things will go a long way come April and (possibly) May.
No one’s saying the Islanders need to win the Stanley Cup this season, but they’ve gotta show some progress.
If the Islanders do find themselves on the losing end in the first round, it won’t be because they weren’t good enough. It’ll be because they didn’t learn those important lessons on what it takes to reach the next level and how to effectively utilize their fullest potential.
That, more than anything else, would be a crying shame for such a talented team.MORE NEWS: After More Than A Year, The Show Must Go On: More Broadway Shows Announce Plans To Resume Performances
Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter at @DFriedmanOnNYI