This Islanders season has already been far better than anyone within or outside the organization could have imagined. In the wake of John Tavares' departure, the Isles have bought into Barry Trotz's style and Lou Lamoriello's shrewd signing of Robin Lehner has paid major dividends. Lehner appears to be in a good place after battling substance addiction and a bipolar diagnosis, and he's been stellar on the ice as part of a goaltending duo with Thomas Greiss.
Lamoriello made the controversial decision not to make any acquisitions at the NHL trade deadline, and it wasn't looking like a smart move when the Isles went through some recent stumbles. The Isles rebounded with two straight wins against the basement-dwelling Senators, putting them back in a tie with Washington for the Metropolitan Division lead and eight points clear of ninth place in the Eastern Conference. But Trotz conceded after Thursday's win that his team is "still scuffling a little bit."
There's plenty of work to do over the final month of the regular season if the Islanders want to secure a playoff berth for the first time since 2015-16, and they'll have to step their game up against better competition.
Their upcoming three-game home stand - part of a stretch of eight out of nine at home - sees the Flyers, Blue Jackets and Canadiens visit the Coliseum, and the Isles may have to navigate that stretch without Robin Lehner, who suffered a possibly head injury Tuesday when he was bowled over by Brady Tkachuk. Barry Trotz's only update Thursday was that Lehner was day-to-day with an upper-body injury - as is Cal Clutterbuck.
It would hurt the Islanders if Lehner has to miss at least a handful of games. Lehner, who's on a one-year, $1.5 million deal and should get a nice contract this summer, has a 2.19 GAA and .927 save percentage in 38 games.
Fortunately for them, Greiss has been terrific as well, owning a 2.22 GAA and .928 save percentage after stopping 35 of 37 shots Thursday. But it's fair to wonder how he'll perform if he has to start a bunch of games in a row with the pressure of being the guy for however long Lehner is out - because the Islanders should avoid using AHL callup Christopher Gibson for as long as possible. The best-case scenario sees Lehner coming back at some point within the next couple of games and start the majority of the Isles' remaining games with Greiss' starts being picked strategically.
Regardless of who's in goal, the Islanders need to bring the consistent work ethic and determination they were becoming known for under Trotz. The Islanders certainly aren't the most talented team, but they have played well together and bought in.
The Isles, who were 2-4-1 in the seven games prior to winning two straight against the lowly Sens, certainly need more from Nick Leddy, who's been struggling at 5-on-5 and has done nothing to spark the team's woeful power play lately. Over their last seven games the Isles are 0-for-15 on power plays, and they're converting just 15.6 of their man-advantages this season, tied for fifth-worst in the NHL as of the end of their game Thursday night.
And it's not just power-play scoring that needs to increase. Though the Isles got contributions from Valtteri Filppula (two goals,) Anthony Beauvillier and Casey Cizikas (empty-netter) on Thursday, they really need an infusion of skill and scoring punch, especially if their top guys aren't going to get it done. Mathew Barzal, for instance, has just one goal in his last 14 games. Jordan Eberle has gone 13 straight without a goal.
So it's worth wondering if the Islanders should keep Michael Dal Colle in the lineup once the Islanders get the likes of Clutterbuck and Matt Martin back in the lineup. And yes, they will have to consider whether it's worth inserting the maddening Josh Ho-Sang in for his offensive upside.
The Islanders have everything they want in front of them, but the road to a playoff berth and a division title - could it be up for grabs in the season finale at Washington? - will be demanding. There can't be solace in just being in playoff contention this late in the season despite preseason expectations, because the goalposts have been moved.
At this point, missing the postseason couldn't be considered anything other than a failure.