After losing consecutive games in regulation for the first time all season, and going 2-5-1 to start December, the Islanders are experiencing their first serious bump in the road to qualifying for the playoffs. No one said it would be easy, but with team defense and goaltending like this, it's actually incredible they're currently in a wild card spot. The Islanders have given up more goals this season than every team in the NHL except Arizona.
Will it make you feel any better today if I provide a little perspective? For about half of my time with the Islanders, we were out of the playoff picture before the holiday party.
No? Okay, then let's take a look at the Metropolitan Division and measure up what will be a crazy playoff chase. By decree of the NHL's unique system, at least three Met teams will not make the playoffs this season. The top three teams in the Met get spots, and then there are the two wild cards available. That means, while it's difficult to take the Hurricanes or even the surging Flyers too seriously at this point, one from a group consisting of the three locals, plus the Penguins, Capitals, and Blue Jackets is not going to make it. Here's how I rate the Met Eight, from most likely to qualify to ones in doubt.
Sergei Bobrovsky is money in the regular season, the wickedly talented Artemi Panarin is getting comfortable, and the defense, led by Zach Werenski and Seth Jones, is top-flight. The Blue Jackets still have something to prove in the playoffs, but there's little doubt that they have the skill, tenacity and depth to get there.
This may not be a Cup year for the Penguins, and as currently constructed, they are not the best of the Metropolitan bunch. That said, a playoff berth seems assured for one big reason. In addition to possessing top-end talent and an impressive fleet of speedy grinders, Pittsburgh remains a "now" team, so GM Jim Rutherford will pay the price in futures to patch some holes when he needs to. The Penguins, wobbly from a lack of depth, will make the tournament.
In the previous two seasons, the Capitals lost 18 and 19 games. After having no answers for the Islanders on Monday at the Barc, the Capitals have already lost 12 games this season. What can hold them back from making the playoffs? The coaching of the magnificently overrated Barry Trotz, whose only real accomplishment was keeping his job in Nashville for 15 years despite winning a total of two playoff rounds in that span. Three years after he left the franchise, the Predators advanced to the Stanley Cup Final. Trotz is hailed by some influential broadcasters as a strong strategist, but he has few actual achievements to back it up. But at least he found time last week to diminish the ability of Kevin Shattenkirk.
With the emergence of Mathew Barzal, and with John Tavares shrugging off distractions like defenders, the Islanders are a playoff team. The forward corps has been amazing in the offensive zone.
It appears Doug Weight has been trying to turn the No. 1 job over to Jaroslav Halak by the second half of the season, but Halak has so far failed the test. Still, while Halak and Thomas Greiss have both been subpar, the bet here is they'll be good enough for the Islanders to at least grab one of the wild cards.
The team defense is in shambles, with some of the blame falling to careless forwards. But the Islanders' defensemen have been the biggest disappointment. Weight might want to give Johnny Boychuk some nights off when he's healthy. For all of the good he has brought to the Islanders, Boychuk has been subpar for the last year, likely hampered by lingering injuries he's too professional to use as an excuse. Resting him a game each week might do Boychuk, and the Islanders, a lot of good for the home stretch of the season.
Ryan Pulock has made some positive strides in the defensive end, but is he ready to play regular minutes in crunch time? He still has a way to go. Calvin de Haan is a $5 million-a-year player? In hockey?
The Islanders may carry eight defensemen, but Garth Snow needs an upgrade on the blue line before the deadline -- ideally a lot sooner. Chances are good Snow will make the required move.
This is the mystery team -- the squad we may be questioning whether they're for real until the last week of the season. Credit goes to GM Ray Shero for stepping up his rebuilding program with smart use of his resources for trades and finding some gems on the scrap heap. And how about Randy Wood's kid? That's been nice to see.
It's tough to completely buy into the Devils' success because it's been so sudden and surprising. They are a delight to watch. Then again, their goaltending is as strong as any in the division. The Islanders have done well this season despite the play of Halak and Greiss. Although they may not be able to keep up their current pace, the Devils just might make it on the backs of Cory Schneider and Keith Kinkaid.
Before their woeful performance in a shootout loss at home to Dallas and loss in Ottawa this week, the Rangers had admirably turned their season around after a horrific start. They are 12-5-1 in their last 18. Lundqvist remains the reason to believe they'll make the playoffs again, but it's difficult to get past this little issue of having few NHL-caliber centers.
The Derek Stepan situation was a weird one. In 2015, he was regarded as such an essential piece that the Rangers signed him to a six-year contract with an annual cap hit of $6.5 million. Two years later -- after Stepan continued to play like Stepan -- it was decided they absolutely had to get him off their salary cap. Yet Jeff Gorton was hardly criticized.
One of the three locals is not going to make the playoffs. Today, it looks like that team could be the Rangers.
Give GM Ron Hextall credit. He stuck with his coach and now they've won five in a row. This has taken longer for Hextall to fix than I thought, and I still believe he'll get the Flyers near the top of the Met in the near future, but this does not appear to be the year.
Winners of 12 of 31, and with good sections available in Raleigh almost every night, the Hurricanes are in sad shape. Maybe new ownership is the answer. It has helped the Islanders.