By Jeff Capellini
The Islanders just completed maybe the most unsuccessfully successful month in team history.
Their 30-day odyssey featuring 12 of 14 games on the road was initially viewed as a sort of make-or-break stretch that would reveal the true nature of this team to a fan base still trying to figure out if the organization’s glass is half full or half empty.
Well, you can forget about those answers you were looking for, because the Islanders are more confusing now than they have been at any point this season.
The first half of the journey consisted of seven road games, including five against Western Conference teams. The Islanders went 6-1, including a rousing victory over the Rangers. The second half featured five of seven on the road. The Islanders went 2-3-2, featuring an offense that went AWOL.
Normally, getting your hands on 18 of a possible 28 points during any segment of a season, let alone one dominated by a slew of road games, should be viewed as a reason for celebration. But the Islanders look worse now than they did when they first departed Barclays Center on Feb. 19.
They left in third place in the Metropolitan Division, only to return home in fourth, or in a wild-card spot. Their margin for error is dropping by the day and suddenly there are no guarantees they will even make the playoffs.
I hate to offer such an alarmist view with 12 games to play, but the Isles are leaving me and many like me no choice. They simply never play a complete 60 minutes, so there’s no way of telling what they will do on any given night.
During the first half of the 14-game stretch, the Isles were mostly outplayed by non-playoff teams, yet won in large part because goaltenders Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss were fantastic, posting a combined 2.00 goals-against average.
And while Greiss has continued to play well since inheriting the No. 1 job due to the injury suffered by Halak during the 2-1 win over Pittsburgh on March 8, the Islanders have played otherwise forgettable hockey in front of him.
The Isles have managed 10 goals over the last six games and were outscored 32-31 over the entire 14-game stretch. In case you are wondering, that averages out to just 2.2 goals per game, an anemic amount and further proof that this team does not have anything resembling a playoff offense.
There has been a misconception over the last two seasons about the Islanders. Those who see them in the top 10 in the NHL in total goals scored, which they were last season and had been for most of this season before their recent outage, tend to believe that everything is fine and that they simply aren’t getting the breaks.
Just read the words of head coach Jack Capuano following Saturday night’s utterly brutal 3-0 loss in Dallas to a Stars team that doesn’t really have a No. 1 goalie and is 24th in the NHL in goals allowed.
“For whatever reason, we’re going through a stretch right now where guys are really having some tough luck. There’s no puck luck for our hockey team right now,” Capuano said.
Really? A closer look, or the eye test, as I like to call it, reveals things that are more troubling.
The Islanders don’t have a top line and rely way too much on role players going above and beyond the call of duty. Superstar center John Tavares, he of the revolving door of linemates for the last six-plus seasons, leads the team with 56 points in 67 games and would need to turn into Wayne Gretzky down the stretch to even have a shot of being a point-per-game player, something he should be at a minimum in my opinion. Need we forget, he was once a first overall pick.
Ryan Strome, Anders Lee and Brock Nelson, the young players who apparently gave general manager Garth Snow his rationale for not adding veteran know-how up front following last season’s playoff disappointment, have combined for just 43 goals. Nelson has 23 of them, but only three in the last 21 games he’s played.
The disappearing act by the Isles’ offense is the same problem they had last season when all kinds of fancy stats suggested they were this offensive juggernaut, only to have those myths dispelled once again by the eye test when the real season started.
Last March, the Isles struggled through a 1-6-1 stretch that featured just 12 goals. Though they ended up with 101 points, a handsome sum not seen in 30 years, they faltered again in the regular season’s final days and ended up losing the divisional tiebreaker to Washington and finishing third. Then, in their first-round playoff series against the Capitals, the Isles were forced to play Game 7 at Washington instead of at what likely would have been a blood-thirsty Nassau Coliseum.
When the ice and space got even smaller during the series loss to the Caps, the Islanders scored just six goals after Game 3.
And now it appears the Isles are in the process of doing a number on their playoff positioning again, if not something worse.
I really don’t want to hear anymore about kids and drafts and not wanting to trade assets to make the team better. The fact remains that Snow has not made an impact move, other than signing Greiss to be the backup goalie, since trading for defensemen Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy back in October of 2014.
In that time, two trade deadlines and an entire offseason have come and gone. Due in large part to Snow’s inactivity, the Isles are once again limping home. While it’s true they still have a dozen games remaining and games in hand on several of the teams they are jockeying for position against in the conference, they in no way have the look of a team determined to win a playoff series for the first time since 1993.
The Islanders struggle against big, physical teams. They tend to get pushed around a lot no matter how many times fourth-liners Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck sacrifice their bodies. They still fail to establish a consistent net presence and much of their sustained offense, if you want to call it that, amounts to a lot of play on the perimeter.
Here are some really damaging stats:
Though the Isles are among the best teams in the NHL in third-period goal differential, they managed just two shots on goal over the final 20 minutes during Thursday’s 4-2 loss in Nashville and just seven on Sunday night in Dallas. Overall, the Islanders have been outshot in nine of their last 14 games.
The fans are going to learn a lot more about this team on Monday night at Barclays Center. The surging Flyers are coming to town with a chance to pull within three points of the Isles. Philadelphia had been on an 8-1-1 tear before losing to Pittsburgh on Saturday.
The Islanders need to show up and right this ship and they need to do it now. Eight of their final 12 games are at home, where they are 21-8-4 this season. If they can turn things around in a hurry they can still make a move on the Rangers and Penguins for second place in the Metro. If not, they could draw the Caps in the first round.
Or miss the playoffs entirely.
Judging by what we’ve seen through 70 games, it’s just hard to have confidence that the Islanders will suddenly unzip themselves and step out anew.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet