By Chris DiMaria
NHL fans’ heads are spinning at this point in the season, thanks to a whirlwind trade deadline coupled with some unexpected division leaders. Perhaps the most surprising of the latter are the New York Islanders, who are strong contenders to finish the season on top and win the Eastern Conference’s Metropolitan Division.
However, they are not just contenders; they are favorites. The Islanders have made a convincing case as to why they will enter this year’s playoffs as division champions, which would end a 20-plus year drought. They continue to win and storm into the playoffs, and do so with the aid of a few additions to the active roster.Embed from Getty Images
The last time the Islanders captured a division championship at all was in 1992-93, when they defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Patrick Division finals. You would have to go back to the 1987-88 campaign to find the last regular season division championship on Long Island, according to Hockey-Reference.com.
Since that 1992-93 season, the Islanders have seen the postseason only six times. But history could be made in a campaign that has seen the Isles exceed everyone’s expectations.
Keeping in mind that the Islanders have played the most games in the NHL thus far, they currently sit atop the Metropolitan Division with a close lead over the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins, with a little more cushion over the fourth-place Washington Capitals, according to ESPN.com.
The Isles’ three-point lead over the Rangers was reduced to one Tuesday night in a close 2-1 loss. The Islanders still won the season series 3-2, in a string of matchups that included games New Yorkers will not soon forget (ESPN.com).Embed from Getty Images
The Islanders hold a slightly better advantage over the Penguins with a four-point gap. New York has some breathing room thanks to a 2-1-1 series lead over the Pens, with the tie resulting in a victorious shootout for the Isles. These rivals still have one game left to play, which could prove to be pivotal as it will be both teams’ second-to-last game in the regular season.
The Islanders’ push for the division title was boosted at the trade deadline. While New York didn’t make any blockbuster trades, the front office did make some deals to add depth to the roster and boost the scoring down the road.
New York went out and acquired goalie Michal Neuvirth from the Buffalo Sabres in an upgrade deal for goalie Chad Johnson and a 2016 third-round pick. Neuvirth will prove to be a solid backup to Jaroslav Halak, and will give Islanders fans an easier night’s sleep the night before Halak’s days off. Among goaltenders, Neuvirth currently sits inside the top 20 in goals allowed (83) and save percentage (.916), which are both better than Halak, according to NHL.com.Embed from Getty Images
The Islanders also brought on forward Tyler Kennedy, who already has a goal and an assist in two games in the Blue and Orange, according to the Islanders’ official site. For compensation, New York will send the San Jose Sharks a conditional pick, which depends on the Islanders winning the cup and Kennedy’s participation in doing so. The 28-year-old has notched 30 points three times in his career, according to NHL.com.
Right winger Kyle Okposo’s return will also have an immediate impact in New York’s scoring totals. Okposo had a breakout season in 2013-14, and was heating up before going out of commission with a detached retina on January 19. Center John Taveras’ linemate has notched 44 points in 47 contests this season according to ESPN.com, and will help improve the Islanders’ 12th-ranked power play percentage (18.5%).
The Islanders’ attack has received a boost in not only the return of Okposo and the acquisition of Kennedy, but also with the stellar play of Taveras and the pleasantly surprising success of center Anders Lee. The second-liner has 23 goals on the season, second only to the first-line center Taveras (NHL.com).Embed from Getty Images
Nine Islanders have notched double-digit goals this season, and more are sure to join that list down the final stretch of the regular season. New York sits third in the league in goals per game with 3.1, according to ESPN.com. Those numbers have proved vital, as the Isles sit 22nd in the league in goals against (2.8). Applying John Madden logic, if they can keep scoring at a faster pace than their opponents, the Islanders will continue their winning ways, which will result in a deep playoff run.
This season will prove to be memorable regardless of any championship titles, as the Islanders play their last home campaign in the Nassau Coliseum. Before moving 25 miles west to Brooklyn, the Islanders will look to make one last push at the division and the Stanley Cup. Maybe there’s just enough magic left in the Isles’ 43-year-old home to make that push a victorious one, and earn a banner to hang in the rafters of the Barclays Center for years to come.