Against all odds – or at least most of them – the Islanders haven’t just hung in the play-off race since dynamic forward Mathew Barzal was injured, they’ve risen. It was almost a month ago on February 18 when the Islanders were destroyed by the Bruins, 6-2, losing Barzal for weeks with a lower body injury.
Wednesday’s 6-3 win in Anaheim took the Islanders to 7-3-1 without Barzal in the lineup, and they remain in the second wild card position as of Friday morning. They are tied with the Penguins on 78 points, though Pittsburgh has two games in hand.
Exactly when Barzal will return – if he returns at all – is still unclear. He’s not on the Islanders’ three-game road trip to California, which ends Saturday in San Jose, and coach Lane Lambert declined to provide any update before the Ducks game on Wednesday.
Regardless, a franchise-changing trade for top-line center Bo Horvat on January 31 showed the organization’s commitment to entering the tournament this season after missing out in 2022. Horvat has cooled off offensively with just one goal lately in his last 10 games, but he was arguably the biggest key to keeping the Islanders afloat in the immediate aftermath of Barzal’s loss. Lately, it’s another newcomer, Pierre Engvall, who has added some important secondary scores after being brought in from Toronto on Feb. 28.
Most importantly, the Islanders have tightened up defensively especially in recent weeks, and with a goalie like Ilya Sorokin in the net, their goal seems to be to play low-event hockey while getting just enough offense to win. In his last nine games, Sorokin is 6-2-1 with a .930 save percentage and 2.22 goals-against average.
It’s not always pretty hockey. And it’s not always effective, as evidenced earlier this week by back-to-back losses to the Capitals and Kings in which the Islanders managed just three goals. It’s also hard to imagine giving the mighty Bruins a big fight if they made the playoffs as the second wild card team.
But that’s a potential concern for another day. For now, the islanders are just trying to get in, and they seem to have found a recipe that will get them there if they can keep it up. Let’s take a deeper look at their odds with 12 games left, with analysis of The athletics Dom Luszczyszyn, whose latest update reflects games through Wednesday, gives the Islanders a 45 percent chance of qualifying for the playoffs.
Power of schedule
stupid: The islanders don’t have a particularly frightening schedule for the future. Half of their games are at home and they play against a 90 point team on average. The Islanders are only favorites in five of the 12 games, but they are also heavier favorites in those games than they are underdogs in the other seven. The end result is that the team is expected to earn 14 points, a pace of 95.7 points that is right in between their current pace (92 points) and the model’s expectations of them (real talent team of 98 points).
That’s enough to essentially make it a 50-50 shot – the model expects more from Florida – but a lot will depend on three games specifically against two teams in the race (more on that below).
Kurz: The phrase “must win” is a little overused this time of year, but the Islanders really had to find a way to grab those two points against the Ducks on Wednesday. And while a win over one of the worst teams in the league may not be much to celebrate, the Islanders still played the second of a back-to-back and were left halfway, despite holding the game for the duration had under control. However, they stuck with it.
Saturday’s game against the Sharks is another one where they just need to find a way to take the two points, and with a few days off before then, they should be plenty energetic and healthy. They also get another two-day break before facing the Maple Leafs next Tuesday, in what is typically a tough game as the first back after a road trip up the West Coast (and a three-hour time difference). For me, they’re going to have to maintain some kind of buffer for that three-game road trip to Washington, Tampa Bay and Carolina, which won’t be easy.
It’s worth pointing out that an early problem the islanders seemed to struggle with was that they downplayed their competition. However, their record against teams in the playoffs and not in the playoffs has stabilized recently: they are an almost identical 17-14-4 against teams currently in playoff position, and 18-13-4 against teams that are not.
Head-to-head matchups are key
stupid: The Islanders play against Buffalo on March 25 and then against Washington on March 29 and April 10. percent or a long shot at 11 percent. Big difference.
Part of that is just knowing that the Islanders have three guaranteed wins or losses on the bench, but the opponents matter here too, as both Washington and Buffalo still have a piece of the playoff pie. Right now, those two teams have a combined chance of 12 percent, and a sweep by the Islanders could say goodbye to those teams’ chances. Those teams have to beat the team they’re chasing to stand a chance, and losing would drop their collective odds to three percent. On the other hand, losing all three Islanders would open the door for Washington and Buffalo, giving the two teams a combined 29 percent chance.
The Islanders must win at least two of those three games – preferably three. Otherwise, they’re just doing the Panthers a huge favor.
Kurz: Do you know that cliché at the beginning of the season that points in October are just as important as points in March? That’s especially true in this case, as the Islanders and Panthers met twice on October 13 at the season opener at the UBS Arena and on October 23 at Sunrise. The Panthers won both games regularly, 3-1 in the first and 3-2 in the second. The Islanders got some of those points back in a 5–1 home game on December 27, but the Panthers still won the season series.
The Islanders defeated Buffalo 3-2 in their most recent meeting on March 7 in a game that still stands out as their biggest of the season. It took a comeback in the third period, but the Islanders were the better team and deserved to win that game. That win, perhaps more than any other performance this season, seemed to suggest that this is an experienced group that can rely on past experience to give them an edge on the trajectory.
“I think our group is a confident group that has done good things in the past,” Brock Nelson said this week. “We have been playing well lately on an important piece for us. Guys have been through different scenarios, maybe on different teams in similar positions, and managed to succeed. I look forward to leaning positively on that and using that moving forward to help us.
Kyle Palmieri was on a team that qualified for the playoffs six times in his previous 12 seasons.
“I think if you’ve been through it before and you’re in a position like this when you’re chasing a wild card spot, you (have to realize) that you’re not going to win every game. When one slips away, like against Washington, you can’t stand there and think, ‘Oh man, if this team wins, they’re going to be that much closer,’ and things like that. You concentrate on yourself and try to prepare for the next game.”
Will that kind of experience help them win? It still looks like a toss-up, as the numbers reflect.
(Photo: Kiyoshi Mio/USA TODAY Sports)