Thanks to a 11-1-3 streak that, let's be honest, no one saw coming they've locked up a playoff spot and have a good chance of making that spot the sixth or seventh seed. There's a big arching storyline here of a long, slow and steady rebuild finally coming to fruition, but before we get to that it's necessary to acknowledge that this whole season has been its own storyline of ups and downs.
This isn't a team that stormed out of the gate on a wave of positive moment like the one that did in 2001-02. There's been little dribs and drabs along the way. They started out well enough at the beginning of the year, with an 4-2-1 record out of the gate. But there was a five-game losing streak in February and that 1-3 homestand in late March that were both maddeningly frustrating and seemed to have elements of the 'same old Islanders,' although that's really just pejorative a term used for anytime things go bad.
But for most of the season, this was a team that wasn't particularly different than the one last year, or the year before.
They had some huge wins, an early season stunner in Pittsburgh on national TV comes first to mind. But on the whole, there were blown third period leads, a bad home record and the inconsistencies that dog young teams and inexperienced teams (take you pick as to how to classify the Isles).
Somewhere along the way it clicked, and this team has shown a killer instinct and ability to find ways to win. Take last night; it wasn't a clear or easy game by any means. The Islanders trailed the whole way, gave up a soft goal or two, but when they found themselves trailing by one late in the third they only pushed harder.
Kyle Okposo, stuck on the ice for a full-minute because he couldn't get off on a line change, was a key in the final goal. Okposo wasn't stuck on the ice and sandbagging it or making a bad play. He was the opposite; showing determination and a drive to win that we wish we had seen more often over the years. He couldn't get off on a change because he was helping to keep the Canes pinned deep in their own zone. In the end, it led directly to the goal. The puck caromed off the defender Okposo was crashing and into the net as two fresh linemates, John Tavares and Matt Moulson, continued the pressure Okposo's line had started.
Even coach Jack Capuano showed a change in his tune by not pulling the goalie. When John Tavares scored with 1:01 on the clock, it was an even strength goal. Two months ago, the goalie heads to the bench and it's a five-alarm fire drill from the Islanders that ends in chaos and barely a shot on net. Last night, they kept the pressure on full blast without the extra man. The contrast between last night's final two minutes and the end of games earlier in this same season is amazing.
But let's zoom out a bit, to a more macro view of things.
Over the past five plus years, the Islanders have come a long way in this rebuild. This is a team that clearly gets it and now has the pieces to make good things happen. Even better, there are more pieces cleaning out their lockers in Bridgeport that could be part of something better in the future. Hopefully this run, wherever it ends up, will inspire those players during the off-season.
This isn't the end of the rebuild. If everything goes well, it should be the start of it.
While making the playoffs on Long Island is always a big deal -- it's only happened four other times since 1994, anyway -- this team should be trying to do more. And we should expect more.
There's no reason to think that the Islanders won't have an excellent chance to win their first playoff series since 1993. And that is the next goal. Making the playoffs was one major step forward for the slow-and-steady rebuild, a goal achieved. Now it's on to the next goal and no one should be settling.
When the last long playoff drought this franchise had ended in 2002, it was a hell of a ride. That series against Toronto is one of the most memorable in franchise history. But it resulted in a loss and the teams that followed never came close to improving upon that run, which took the Leafs to seven games.
The Eastern Conference is a mess right now, save for the Penguins. If you look at the standings this morning, seeds two through nine are all within eight points of each other. And every team has warts: Boston, Ottawa and Montreal are struggling, Toronto is a young, first-time playoff team, Washington had a horrific first half, and the Rangers and Jets are still fighting for their playoff lives.
The Islanders, with a bad first half of their own, have turned things to a whole new level over the last month. With a hot team and a weak conference, now might be an aligning of the stars so to speak. There hasn't been a better opportunity to make a playoff run for this team in a long time. Now is the time to achieve that next goal. Now's not the time to get complacent in making the dance. It's the time to show up in style and steal the show. It's time summon the ghosts of Turgeon and Thomas and erase twenty years of playoff-less seasons and losing playoff appearances.