Next 9 Games Will Either Put Stamp On Brilliant Turnaround Or Prove First 2 Months Were Too Much To Overcome

By Jeff Capellini
WFAN.com

There’s no turning back.

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The Islanders are about to embark on the longest road trip in franchise history, a set of nine games that will, for all intents and purposes, determine if they will make the playoffs.

Needless to say, it will be the furthest thing from easy.

Because of how poorly they started the season, the Isles are in a position where they really have to come home with more wins than losses. Their first 31 games were an abomination. They put themselves so far behind the 8-ball they were left with no choice but to play stellar hockey in order to have a shot at a fourth postseason berth in the last five seasons.

They haven’t been fantastic since starting 11-14-6, but, for the most part, they have been very good. By going 16-7-4 since Dec. 18, the Isles are now two points behind eighth-place Boston. And while they likely won’t do any better than the final slot in the Eastern Conference race — and that’s with everything breaking right the rest of the way — they do have a lot of time left to get the job done.

However, the problem facing the Islanders going forward is they will play 17 of their final 24 games on the road, an extremely daunting task given the fact that they have won just seven games away from Barclays Center all season.

“We got to change things,” interim head coach Doug Weight said. “We don’t have a good feeling, not a good vibe on the road right now. … We’ve been (home) a lot and we’ve been great (at home) and it’s been a crutch. Hopefully, we can get on the road and get together as a team and start to be that good road team that I believe we can be.”

Nick Leddy, Jason Chimera, Johnny Boychuk

Islanders Nick Leddy, left, Jason Chimera, center, and Johnny Boychuk celebrate a third-period goal against the Colorado Avalanche at Barclays Center on Feb. 12, 2017. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

New York has been outscored 13-3 over its last three on the road, including a forgettable 7-1 loss at playoff-hopeful Toronto last Tuesday, a game that was supposed to be the litmus test for the minefield to follow.

So starting Tuesday night in Detroit, the Isles have to find a way to show the same focus and resiliency they have displayed at Barclays, where they have won 20 times, the fifth-most home wins in the NHL.

After the stop in the Motor City, the Islanders will travel to Montreal, Columbus, Dallas, Chicago, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver and St. Louis. Considering how jam-packed the race for eighth in the East is — nine teams are within 10 points — anything short of 10 out of the 18 possible points on the trip could leave the Isles with little time to turn things around.

“It’s a lot of big games in a short period of time,” forward Casey Cizikas said. “We got to be ready and just take it one game at a time but know the importance of each game. … We got to play a full 60 (minutes). We can’t come out with flat starts.”

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They need to do more than that.

First and foremost, team defense has to show up every night. The Isles have allowed 36 goals in their last 10 games due in part to physical and mental breakdowns. Too often the Isles have struggled to defend speed, and they have had a hard time dealing with opponents’ forechecking. Possession has been their forte for the last several seasons, but when they play like they are wielding tennis rackets instead of hockey sticks, things quickly go off the rails.

Second, goaltending has been by and large the team’s strength this season, but Thomas Greiss has been somewhat off of late. While a bit of a slump following the wicked run that landed him a three-year contract extension was probably unavoidable, Greiss has not been good this month. He posted a .930 save percentage in five December appearances and a .935 mark in 11 January games, but has crashed to .873 in his seven games in February. Again, part of the problem has been the guys in front of him, but this is no time for excuses. Greiss must perform.

Third, Ryan Strome can’t just disappear again. The young forward, who struggled mightily under former head coach Jack Capuano, has been a totally different player with Weight at the helm, registering 11 points in his last 11 games, including three in Sunday night’s home win over New Jersey. And it’s not just Strome who has to continue to play with consistency. For the team to keep up its solid secondary scoring, players like Ladd (four goals in his last three games) and Jason Chimera (four goals, assist in last seven) need to keep doing what they have been doing.

TIME TO GO FOR IT

I realize I have banged on the trade drum all season, but now is really the time to make a splash. Recent reports have suggested general manager Garth Snow is ready to be a buyer at the deadline. Well, he has nine days to make this team not only better for now, but for next season as well. Remember, the Isles have just one pending unrestricted free agent, defenseman Dennis Seidenberg.

The Isles are reportedly high on Colorado’s Matt Duchene. There’s no denying the talent he possesses and what he would mean centering the second line or perhaps playing alongside John Tavares. Duchene is a former 70-point player who is just 26 and is signed through the 2018-19 season. He’s also a dominant face-off man, which I don’t need to tell you is a big part of what the Isles have been missing since Frans Nielsen left during the offseason.

I really believe if Duchene costs a coveted veteran, a very good prospect and a high draft pick, Snow should make the offer. The Isles have the assets to get that type of deal done without putting a serious dent in their future.

Also, though Snow has reportedly been trying to trade banished Jaroslav Halak, the Isles need wins. Since being optioned to AHL Bridgeport, Halak is 13-1-1 with a 1.96 goals-against average and .931 save percentage. If a deal can’t be worked out, get him up here and let the Isles go to war with a two-headed goalie monster, which was the desired blueprint in the past. I just can’t imagine him or his agent being as disruptive as they were before.

It’s all-hands-on-deck time, folks. The Islanders can’t leave anything to chance. If ever there was a time to abandon their usually cautious ways and go for it, it’s right now.

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Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @JCapWFAN