The Islanders are back in the playoffs. You make the playoffs and anything can happen.
In 1975, the once-forlorn Islanders just barely squeezed into their first postseason berth and you know what happened after that; or do you?
Facing the vaunted Rangers, the Nassaumen upset the Blueshirts and then knocked off Pittsburgh by winning four straight games after losing the first three in the row.
Matter of fact, coach Al Arbour’s club almost took Philly in Round 3 — losing the first trio of contests, then winning three — before bowing out in Game 7.
That was then, but this is now, so let’s check out the Islanders’ chances against their first-round foe Florida Panthers:
The Islanders — by necessity — alternated between Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss in net. At season’s start, Halak was the designated N0. 1, but after Game 82, it was Greiss who had played more games as the understudy. Even worse, Halak’s homestretch injury could mean that he’ll be unavailable for the playoffs.
Thus, Greiss will — hopefully — carry the load while Jean-Francois Berube winds up moving from No. 3 to No. 2. At the very least, puck-stopping is a questionable commodity for the Brooklynites.
The big, BIG, hope is that Travis Hamonic will return in time for the playoff opener. If so, the blueline corps has flexibility with Nick Leddy, Johnny Boychuk, Thomas Hickey and Calvin de Haan comprising the inner quartet. Jack Capuano then must choose from among gifted youngsters such as Ryan Pulock and Adam Pelech. Then again, vets Marek Zidlicky and Brian Strait could get the nod, depending on whether the coach wants experience over vitality.
By far, the biggest gap is the one created by Anders Lee’s season-ending injury. Lee had morphed into a scoring boulder situated right outside the crease. His 15 goals hardly speak to the Big Guy’s value and that explains why Cappy’s challenge will be finding an adequate replacement.
My choice would be Steve Bernier, who dressed for a mere 24 regular season games. Nonetheless, the ex-Devil has the experience and grit to be a reasonable facsimile, should he get the nod.
Two elements could turn the Isles offense into a major force: 1) A threatening line comprised of captain John Tavares flanked byKyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen. That triumvirate propelled Cappy’s crew into the playoffs and has the potential to remedy any scoring deficiencies: 2) The “Fourth Line” of Matt Martin-Cal Clutterbuck-Casey Cizikas ranks among the best of its kind at guerrilla warfare. Plus, it also produces key goals.
What’s in-between raises questions. Brock Nelson‘s production slipped in the stretch and must revive if red-light balance is to be achieved. Josh Bailey must — as in MUST — rev up his game to the next gear. Ditto for Ryan Strome, who has been in-and-out of the coach’s dog house.
Not to be overlooked is the solid defensive game delivered by Nikolay Kulemin.
That Trade Deadline addition of Shane Prince could be GM Garth Snow‘s “sleeper” move the proves effective in terms of speed and penalty-killing.
Finally, Mikhail Grabovski‘s shot will be missed, but the club has adjusted to his absence as well as it could.
Tavares should be super-motivated considering that he has just two first-round exits on his resume. In October, it was figured that Halak would be the puck-stopping savior, but now the pressure is on Greiss to prove that he has the goods in the clutch. This Islanders club must show that it can break through and into the second playoff round.
For the past two seasons, the Isles have swooned in the homestretch, just about sneaking into a playoff slot. This is not the best formula for finishing high on the playoff hog.
Capuano is as likable as any bench boss; and that goes for players and the media who cover the man. But Cappy’s inability to move the Isles up another rung or two on the post-season ladder now is a cause for concern in terms of whether he really has the goods.
HOW TO BEAT FLORIDA:
Jaromir Jagr is the Cats MVP, but can be stopped. All the Isles have to do is check out the 1993 playoff vs. Pitt when Darius Kasparaitis drove Mario Lemieux nuts. This time, Clutterbuck can become the latter-day Kasper The Ghost. That said, the Panthers display a neat blend of youth and experience, who play hard on the puck in all three zones.
What the Isles need to succeed is more consistency and a strong playoff from Captain Tavares. The lineup must be motivated from start to finish so that the franchise can take the next step upward in Brooklyn. The return of a healthy Hamonic could be the decisive factor. But, more than anything, Tavares must lead by deed.
As Ryan Kennedy writes in The Game’s Bible, The Hockey News, “The captain of the Islanders is now in his seventh NHL season. He has been a first team All-Star, a Hart Trophy runner-up and a gold medalist at the Winter Olympics. But team success in the NHL has eluded him.” Now’s the time for that “team success.”
Islanders in seven.