A little over two weeks ago, the New York Islanders looked dead in the water. After a December 28 loss to the Devils, Jack Capuano’s crew had won 11 times through 38 games – this, a year after establishing themselves as a team to be reckoned with in the Eastern Conference. Of those 11 wins, just five had come at home – this, a year after restoring the roar in old Nassau Coliseum. With 29 points to date, the Islanders were 14 points removed from the playoffs and ahead of only the Buffalo Sabres in the league standings, thus rendering the Isles the worst team in the NHL actually trying to win games.
A night later in Minnesota, things took a turn for the ugly. The Islanders fell three goals behind the Wild early in the second period, and look destined for their 16th loss in 19 games. Here we go again was the seeming response from a beleaguered team. Then, behind a John Tavares goal midway through the period, the Islanders rerouted the season.
It’s hard to know what exactly jolted this team to life, but make no mistake: the Islanders, as if shocked by an industrial defibrillator, are alive now. They stormed back to win in Minnesota, 5-4, to kickstart a 7-1 stretch that continues to gain momentum. After a 4-2 win last night in Dallas, it’s safe to say those dead-in-the-water Islanders are the hottest team in the Eastern Conference.
They’re now up to eighth in the wild card chase, and more importantly, have shaved their playoff deficit to just seven points. Generally improved play in the Metropolitan Division has held the Isles at bay, at least in terms of positioning, but the gap continues to narrow. And in that thicket of teams jockeying for the final two playoff spots, the Islanders feel as close as anyone. While the Maple Leafs, losers of four of their past five, fall back into the pack, the Islanders, winners of seven of their past eight, push toward the front.
Trailing, but in position to strike, Tavares and Co. are right where they want to be. For if there is one characteristic coming to define this team, it is their never-say-die resiliency. Indeed recently, the Islanders have become masters of the comeback.
Their current 7-1 stretch includes six come-from-behind wins; four of those were from two-goal deficits or more. (The Islanders, single-handedly, are confirming the notion that a two-goal lead is the most dangerous lead in hockey.) After stealing one in Colorado on Friday night – tying the game in the third before winning in OT – the Islanders now lead the NHL in wins when trailing after two periods.
Detractors might say a middling team like the Islanders should be leading this category – and they’re partly right. Most of the league’s best teams don’t show up near the top here simply because they don’t have to. (Anaheim, who leads the NHL in points, has just two wins when trailing after two periods all season.) When you’re good, the logic says, you don’t play from behind.
Nevertheless, the will, the defiance, shown recently by the Islanders is seriously impressive – and the mark of a high-character bunch. Though young, they are now playing with veteran nerve, undeterred when things unravel, unfazed when things tighten up. And their best hockey, it seems, is coming against their toughest opponents, an ability to answer the bell, to rise to the occasion, that’s uncommon for a team this short on experience. All seven of their past eight wins have come against teams with winning records, including the two Stanley Cup finalists from a season ago. (Good teams don’t play from behind, it turns out, until they have lost.)
Their mojo back, the Islanders are looking very much like the 2012-13 team that re-galvanized a dormant fan base in Nassau County – a sleeping giant, as it turned out. They are scoring goals at a terrific rate, while giving up their fair share for good measure, and winning those 5-4 type of games that the league loves to see. Last season, remember, the Islanders were among the NHL’s best in goals scored and among the NHL’s worst in goals against. (In the playoffs, they ultimately fell to the high-flying Penguins in six games by a combined score of 25-17.)
But this year, the Isles appear to be tougher, more hardened. This is a team that lost ten games in a row over three weeks in November and December and still finds itself in playoff contention. A blow of that weight knocks most teams to the mat, their bearings lost until it’s all too late.
The Islanders, apparently, aren’t like most teams. Which has them – like most teams – right back in the mix.