By Daniel Friedman
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When the Islanders lost that heartbreaking Game 7 to the Washington Capitals last spring, all of the subsequent chatter revolved around how close they were to winning the series.
If only Travis Hamonic were healthy. If only the offense was better. If only they had beaten Columbus in that freakin’ game and clinched home-ice advantage in the first round.
There was all this talk about how close the Islanders were, and yet nobody stopped to think about how far they were. If that series didn’t demonstrate how much better the Caps were than the Isles, certainly their performance in the next round did.
And, the more things played out, the more you realized that the Islanders weren’t scoring enough because Braden Holtby was keeping pucks out and Washington’s defense was taking away many prime opportunities.
The Capitals proved they were on their way to becoming an elite contender, and I would’ve said the same thing even if they hadn’t acquired T.J. Oshie in the offseason (who, by the way, has underperformed thus far).
The Islanders? Not so much.
Here we are, at the halfway point of the 2015-16 season, and they’ve clearly shown that, not only have they neglected to learn a single lesson from that playoff defeat, but they’ve actually managed to take a bit of a step backwards.
This is not something you’re going to notice by looking at the standings. The Isles currently rank second in the Metropolitan Division, one point ahead of the Rangers, with a record of 22-14-5. They’re tied for third place in the Eastern Conference, and have unquestionably done some very good things through 41 games.
However, that only serves to mask their flaws and, if left unchecked, those issues will have a magnified impact come playoff time. Forget about beating Washington; they won’t beat the Rangers or anyone else if they maintain the status quo.
Many believe that simply trading for a scoring winger will somehow catapult the Islanders into that upper echelon, but the reality is, the gap between them and elite teams is far wider than that. You want to know what the differences between the Capitals and Islanders are?
Structure. Discipline. Coaching. Proper balance of offense and defense. Consistent effort for 60 minutes. Those are the fundamental dissimilarities between the two teams; not a lack of Thomas Vanek.
Sure, the moves the Caps made to shore up their roster were helpful, but the main reason for their success has been Barry Trotz’s coaching and the manner in which his players have bought into what he’s been selling them.
Even on the soft goal that Jaroslav Halak allowed in the first period during the Isles’ 4-1 loss on Thursday at Barclays Center, the Caps had an odd-man rush and all the space in the world to make a play. Their third goal was the result of a horrendous turnover by Marek Zidlicky.
The Isles also came out flat to start the game, and were outright dominated at times. That game wasn’t nearly as close as it looked.
None of those things are going to help the Isles win a playoff series. Conversely, they’re sure-fire ways to help lose a playoff series.
The Islanders’ offense has actually started to come forth. Heading into Thursday night’s contest in Brooklyn, they had scored 22 goals over their previous six games. Ryan Strome, Anders Lee and Brock Nelson, who have been under fire all season long, have been making plays and getting on the scoresheet more frequently.
I’ve always maintained that their scoring woes were not personnel-related, and that hasn’t changed. And, as I’ve alluded to in the past, Washington was in a similar situation just a few years ago, but that team has found a way to restore its lethality on offense with most of those same players who’d previously struggled.
Like the Capitals, the Islanders need to change their approach. Perhaps, Jack Capuano isn’t the man to do that, just as Adam Oates wasn’t the right guy for Washington. Perhaps, John Tavares needs to start playing like John Tavares again.
There are a number of things the Isles need to work on, and that holds true on all levels of the organization, from the front office, to the coaching staff, to the players.
Right now, they could trade for Steven Stamkos and they’d still lose a seven-game playoff series. And the shame of it is, they have enough talent to give any team a run for its money, even without him. But talent alone won’t win you a darn thing, and the Islanders were supposed to have learned that when Washington eliminated them last spring.
Through 41 games this season, they simply haven’t.
Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter @bardownhowitzer