Fan bases are prone to overreact to how their team is doing. A few wins in a row leads to glowing optimism. That is the way things should be (and will always be), while a losing streak leads to wailing which is the way things are and that they are getting worse. Not everyone reacts this way, but enough do to set a tone for fan deliberations.
Absent a major collapse, which is highly unlikely, the Islanders will make the playoffs. A few wins against the Rangers this coming week would address that issue. But the end of the year brings back Buffalo and New Jersey, and if the Isles don’t win those games, not making the playoffs will be the least of their problems going into the offseason.
Once upon a time securing a playoff berth seemed to be as much as Islanders fans could expect. After all, between 1994 and 2015 the team failed to win a single playoff round in seven tries, and only came close to winning twice (2002 and 2015). In recent years, however, when they have made the playoffs (three times in five years), the Isles have won at least one playoff round, and last year they reached the final four for the first time since 1993. Going that far in the MassMutual East division may be a challenge this year, with four very good and evenly-matched teams eyeing the postseason. A closer look though offers little ground for confidence and more than enough reason to worry.
Simply put, if the Islanders finish third or fourth in their division this season, they will be in trouble, because they will have to play at least one series against an opponent with home ice advantage (two if they finish fourth). To date they have won a single road game against Boston, Washington, and Pittsburgh—and that was a month ago in overtime versus Boston. They are 10-10-2 against those three teams, winning three and losing two in extra time (overtime plus shootouts).
In this pandemic season home ice may not be what it once was, given the smaller (if vocal) crowds. That might reduce the advantage a home team has … but recall that these conditions also work against the Islanders at home, where the frenzy of postseason crowds is legendary. Moreover, while Boston and Washington improved their teams at little cost, with Pittsburgh making some additions that might improve their squad, the Islanders were tasked with offsetting the loss of captain Anders Lee, and the jury is out on whether Lou Lamoriello’s trade deadline acquisitions are up to that task.
The Islanders have eight games left to figure out if they can get more than one of their top three lines going at the same time, especially when coach Barry Trotz continues to put bottom-six talent on Mathew Barzal’s left wing. To date his favorite solutions have not worked, regardless of what some analytics say: scoreboards are often more reliable assessments, and the Islanders’ offense has been more famine than feast since Lee went down. If anything, the team’s margin for error, already thin, is now nearly nonexistent, and just a few slips by an otherwise stellar pair of netminders or sloppy defensive positioning can prove devastating. A lack of spirited play and inattention to detail has not helped: something needs to change if the Islanders want to go past the first round, let alone deep into the playoffs in this unusual year.
Panic? No. Worry? Yes. A lot.
Follow Brooks on Twitter at @BrooksDSimpson