So, maybe the New York Islanders are about to show us they can be something other than the butt of cruel hockey jokes about dingy arenas, lunatic contracts and adding useless bodies in order to get to the salary-cap floor.
Absent from the playoffs since 2007, the Islanders last won a playoff round in 1993, but here they are, with less than a month left in the regular season, tied for eighth in the Eastern Conference with the New York Rangers. The Isles finished a four-game trip Monday night with a tidy 3-1-0 record, thanks to a 3-1 victory over their neighbors from New Jersey, the Devils. The only loss during the trip came against the league’s top team, the Pittsburgh Penguins.
In fact, with an 11-5-1 road record, the Isles are one of the most successful teams in visiting rinks in the Eastern Conference. If you assume it takes some measure of maturity and discipline to win on the road, then perhaps coach Jack Capuano has done more teaching than he is generally given credit for with this young Islanders team.
Conversely, it doesn’t speak well of a team that stinks when it has to return to its aging home on Long Island. The Isles are 6-11-2 at home, the worst home mark in the league. That will have to change at least marginally if the playoffs are to be anything more than a mirage. Still, the Isles have won four of five and allowed only eight goals over that five-game span.
Can 37-year-old Evgeni Nabokov keep up the pace? The former San Jose Sharks backstopper has played in 16 of the past 17 games and has done yeoman service for the Islanders, a team he originally balked at joining when he returned from a stint in the Kontinental Hockey League.
And know this: Every Isles win puts even more pressure on their higher-pedigree New York-area cousins. The Devils, without Ilya Kovalchuk, have struggled offensively and are especially vulnerable when they fall behind, as they did giving up two early goals to the Isles on Monday. The Devils are only two points ahead of the Islanders and the Rangers. The Rangers came up with a huge 4-2 win over Winnipeg Monday after being shut out in successive games. They hold a game in hand on both as they have 13 games remaining in the regular season and the Isles and Devils have 12. But the Rangers rank last in the league in goals scored and the Devils have won only twice in their past nine games. While they have managed to collect points in six of those nine games, it seems inevitable that unless New Jersey finds a way to reverse this trend of mediocrity, the Devils will not be among the top eight in the conference at the end of the month. Of course, the fact that the Isles are making a rare playoff push just adds to the unusual dynamic for the three New York-area teams.