By Jeff Capellini
After deciding not to pit with about 20 laps left in their race to the playoffs, the Islanders now find themselves closing in on the checkered flag with melted tires and a gas tank that’s on fumes.
I apologize for the out-of-left-field NASCAR analogy, but in many ways it’s appropriate. The Islanders had a chance at the trade deadline to bring in some reinforcements, or in this case some new tires, but chose not to due to their supposedly undying belief in the team they had at the time. General manager Garth Snow refused to sacrifice pieces of the club’s future in order to bolster a group that has been the furthest thing from consistent all season.
Now, the Isles have 11 games left and are in the midst of a month in which they have gone just 4-4-2. Sure, they finished their franchise-record nine-game road trip at a more-than-respectable 5-3-1, but since concluding that odyssey have been way more miss than hit, getting outscored 17-11 and winning just once in their last four games.
Every team is beat up in March, and it’s not like the Islanders are the only club out there that has logged a lot of miles and has had little time to work out issues in practice due to the condensed schedule. Yes, the NHL’s “bye week” idea needs to be rethought, but saying the Isles are tired right now is just an excuse.
They have a little more than two weeks left to fight their way into the postseason, which would be their fourth trip in the last five seasons. Anything short of a playoff berth this time around would be a colossal failure, given the fact that this team came into 2016-17 off its second straight 100-point season and first playoff series win in 23 years.
Let’s not mince words about the Isles’ season to date. It has been filled with self-inflicted wounds. It started during the offseason when Snow let more offense leave than he brought in. And that’s not to say that summer signings Andrew Ladd and Jason Chimera have been busts. Quite the contrary, actually. Both have put together representative seasons, all things considered.
But the Islanders still aren’t as good as they were last season.
They still have this big-picture mentality that should be reserved for teams that have a better track record of success. The Isles play the personnel game like they are the hunted instead of the hunter, like they have enough talent to get by on talent alone.
The Isles are a good hockey team, but they are not an Eastern Conference contender, and that’s a shame considering the inroads they had made over the previous two seasons. At this point in the game, having been at this rebuilding thing for several years, they should be further along than fighting for eighth place in the conference.
Toronto, which currently owns the final playoff spot, took advantage of its game in hand on New York on Monday night, beating Boston 4-2. As a result, the Islanders woke up Tuesday morning three points out and with even less margin for error.
Tampa Bay, which is one point back of New York with the same number of games played, takes on lowly Arizona on Tuesday, so the Isles could find themselves trailing two teams for the final spot when they take the ice at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday for the final regular season meeting with the Rangers.
Having last played on Saturday, a 3-2 overtime loss to visiting Columbus, the Islanders should be both physically and mentally prepared for the Rangers. They need to play 60 minutes, which they really haven’t done since their convincing 4-1 win in Edmonton on March 7, in order to keep the pressure on the Leafs and Bolts, and to have a chance to take the season series from their crosstown rivals for the third straight year.
Goaltender Thomas Greiss should benefit the most from this rare calm section of the schedule. As long as Snow continues to do the absurd and keep Jaroslav Halak banished in the minors, the Isles are going to have to live and die with a goaltender in Greiss who has been overworked, in my opinion, throughout the season’s second half.
In the aftermath of Halak passing through waivers and being sent down to AHL Bridgeport just prior to the new year, Greiss posted a .935 save percentage in January. His numbers suggest he has been awful since, though to anyone who actually watches this team on a consistent basis, it’s pretty clear the players in front of him have been just as much at fault as he has, if not more.
Still, since agreeing to his three-year contract extension on Jan. 30, a deal he celebrated the next night with a 28-save performance in a 3-2 win over the league-best Washington Capitals, Greiss has posted save percentages of .891 and .893 in February and March, respectively. The 31-year-old German netminder has allowed at least four goals in eight of his last 20 appearances.
Being fair about it, Greiss has not been substandard the entire time. He has often been under siege, and the numbers haven’t reflected the circumstances in any one particular game. Still, the Isles should be going to war right now with Greiss and Halak, but, due to reasons only Snow knows, in-over-his-head youngster Jean-Francois Berube still has a roster spot. There have been rumblings that Halak could rejoin the big club soon, with a pair of back-to-backs coming before the end of the month the most likely window, but there’s just no way to predict what Snow is thinking, and why.
I would love to sit here and write about how impressive Josh Ho-Sang has been since he was called up prior to the game at Dallas on March 2, but now is not the time for finding silver linings or focusing on feel-good stories. The Islanders need wins, and they need them any way they can get them.
If they don’t get enough, they’ll end up being exactly what many hockey insiders predicted before the season started — a team that took a step back.
But all that said, there’s still time to shift things into a higher gear.
The Isles absolutely must, because they have no teammates out there running interference for them. And should they grab the final spot again, this race isn’t going to finish under caution.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @JCapWFAN