With the playoffs a week away, the only thing we know for sure is the Islanders will not have home-ice advantage in the first round. The fourth seed in the division is all but assured at this point, but the top three teams in the East are still battling it out for the top seed. The Isles will face a team they are all too familiar with, either the Caps, Pens or Bruins, and will have a tall task no matter the opponent.
The Isles are stumbling to the finish line and have yet to play with the consistency in their game we’ve all become accustom to, and if they don’t get back to Islander hockey soon, the opponent won’t matter.
“We gotta get back to our identity. We’re cheating our own game. There’s a certain way that we want to play, and I think we’ve come out and played the right way for 10-12 minutes and instead of just staying with it, we all of a sudden start changing our game. They’re some things that we’re doing ok, but they’re some things we really gotta get back to because I think we’re cheating each other a little bit,” Barry Trotz said after Thursday’s loss to the Devils.
As the Isles try to right the ship with two games left in the regular season, let’s look ahead and rank who the Isles would have the best chance of outlasting in the first round, starting with the least desirable opponent.
3. Boston Bruins
Record vs. Boston: (5-2-0) Games Remaining: 1
The Isles will end the regular season with a makeup game against the Bruins on Monday. While they’ve had an unusual amount of success against the B’s this season the Isles have not beaten them since late March and the two teams are currently trending in opposite directions. Boston is 11-2-1 since acquiring Taylor Hall on April 12th and have looked like a completely reinvigorated squad since the move. The addition of Hall gives the Bruins a rock solid second line behind arguably the most lethal top line in hockey. On top of that, the Bruins play a similar, heavy, style of hockey like the Isles, and have given New York fits over the years.
The underlying numbers also show how dominant Boston has been this year as they rank tops in the East division in xG%, CF% (chances for%) and SF% (shots for%). They carry the play when they’re going well and have lethal scorers that can put the puck in the net. It’s a bad combination for an Isles team that has seen their underlying numbers dip dramatically over the last month. The Isles should pray they don’t see the B’s in round one.
2. Washington Capitals
Record vs Washington: (2-5-1)
It’s been a strange season series against the Caps with some tight checking, low scoring affairs and some wild up and down, high scoring outings. Most recently, however, the Isles got swept in a three-game set at the end of April scoring just three goals in total. The Capitals may not be as strong as their record indicates, however.
First, the Caps are banged up right now. Alex Ovechkin hasn’t played in a week; Tom Wilson was injured last game against the Rangers; and Evgeny Kuznetsov got COVID for a second time causing him to miss a few games. While their acquisition at the trade deadline, Anthony Mantha, has contributed, the teams overall underlying numbers aren’t as high on the Caps as some in the hockey world are.
They rank 12th in the league in xG%, one spot behind the Isles, are middle of the pack in scoring chances, and rank behind the Isles in other important categories like High Danger Chance percentage and High Danger Shooting percentage. In goal, arguably the most important position come postseason time, the Caps team SV% is .915, 19th in the NHL while the Isles sit around .930 good for third in the league. Washington’s High Danger SV% is even worse at .795, 29th in the NHL ahead of just San Jose and Philly.
That last stat could be extremely important because the Isles as a team generate the third most high danger chances in the league and should be able to cash in on the Caps spotty goaltending in that area. If the first-round opponent is Washington, the Isles would have a chance.
1. Pittsburgh Penguins
Record vs Pittsburgh: (2-4-2)
Yes, the record isn’t pretty, but the Isles should not be afraid of the Penguins at all.
First of all, these two teams have only seen each other twice since February. They are completely different teams now than they were early in the season with the mix of injuries and trades. Pittsburgh has also been extremely fortunate with the results they’ve gotten this year because according to the advance stats, this is a middle of the road team. xG% they sit 18th in the league, they sit 14th when it comes to chances created, and rank 21st in high danger chances.
Despite not creating a lot of high danger chances, the Pens make the most of it because they are shooting a ridiculous 22% on high danger shots which is tops in the entire NHL. Their team shooting percentage is also 5th in the NHL, near 9.5%. What makes that stat even more incredible is the Penguins take the 6th most shots in the league, so to be shooing that high a percentage indicates a degree of luck the Pens have gotten this year. The Flyers, for example had the highest shooting percentage in the league for the first two months, which saw them near the top of the NHL standings during that time. However, their shooting numbers regressed as the season went on and their play went with it. The point is, the Penguins are due for negative shooting regression and are also weakest in the areas that should be the Isles’ strength. Combine all those fancy stats with the fact that the Isles completely shut down a similar Penguins team two post seasons ago, and you should feel decent about the Isles chances should they draw Pittsburgh in round one.
Again, these all become moot points if the Isles can’t figure out their own game heading into the postseason. But should the Isles get back to Islander hockey, they have a very good chance of making out of the first round.
Follow Ethan on Twitter @egreenberg99