Calling the fourth game of a season a “measuring stick” seems questionable, but for the New York Islanders, it’s exactly what tomorrow night has become.
Tomorrow evening, the Isles square off against the undefeated Carolina Hurricanes down in Raleigh.
The Canes, who already have wins over the Canadiens, Lightning, Capitals and Panthers, have started strong. Rod Brind’Amour’s club has scored three or more goals in their first four games, look like the fastest team in the league, and their offseason inflatable obstacle course for sale additions — forwards Ryan Dzingel, Erik Haula and defenseman Jake Gardiner — have gotten off to great starts thus far. The Isles, on the other hand, have stumbled out of the gate going 1-2-0 and having just gotten embarrassed 5-2 by the Edmonton Oilers on Tuesday night.
It has not been the ideal start either the fans or head coach Barry Trotz had hoped.
The Isles have struggled to generate offense — two or fewer goals in two of the first three games. Defensively and in goal, they’re not as sound as they were last season. Their starts to games have also been sluggish. All of those factors contribute to why tomorrow night is crucial that the Isles come out flying out of the gate.
They’re going to need a fast start and keep their foot on the gas because Carolina has shown its resiliency. The Canes have already come back twice from two-goal deficits to win this season.
Where this game lies in importance also deals with two other storylines: 1) This is the Isles’ first road game of the year and their first back-to-back of the season, 2) It’s the club’s return to where their season ended last May.
The Isles want to get off to a strong start away from home. Last year it took them till late October to start winning consistently on the road. After that, they were the fourth-best road team in the NHL at 24-14-3. Against a good opponent like Carolina, getting that first road win out of the way will provide not just relief, but confidence.
As for the back-to-back situation, right after they finish in Carolina, the Isles have the newly-led Florida Panthers and coach Joel Quenneville waiting for them Saturday night at the Coliseum. And though Florida is also playing two games in 24 hours — they play in Buffalo Friday night — the Isles don’t want to come home reeling at 1-3-0 and having lost their first two divisional games.
Returning to the scene of the crime as some have said, might be the underlying factor for why tomorrow night is so vital.
The Isles were swept out of the second round by the Hurricanes last spring and were no match for them in games three and four at PNC Arena, both 5-2 blowouts. Exacting some revenge on the team that knocked them out also will provide satisfaction for the players.
From a motivational aspect, there shouldn’t be much Trotz needs to say to his players. Division opponent, a team they’ll be fighting with all year long for a playoff spot, and at the moment the best team in the Eastern Conference. Add that Trotz not only called out his team after the loss to the Oilers but said he wanted players who are going to play “hard”, it’s a recipe for the Islanders to need to give their most complete effort since the season started.
Trotz will have his guys up for this game because nothing about playing Carolina will be easy. The Isles saw what unfolded when they tried to play that type of game.
It will be a tough test, but it’s something the Isles need even with the season in its early stages.
Follow me on Twitter at @RTaub_