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How The Islanders Can Win In The Playoffs… And How They Can’t

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New York Islanders

The New York Islanders punched their ticket to the Stanley Cup Playoffs with a 3-0 win over the rival New York Rangers, capping off a two-game sweep in which they outscored their cross-town opponents, 7-0. The playoffs are exciting and will be packed with intrigue. If an animated Tom Hanks was hole punching a golden ticket for the Islanders, it might read one of two things.

’Believe’ or ‘Uncertainty.’

You’ve watched the New York Islanders flounder over the better part of their last 11 games, and so have I. I’ve seen them play three solid games over the course of that stretch, ironically all against the Rangers, a team that will NOT be in the playoffs. It’s not like they simply lost the other eight, they were outplayed by a considerable margin in almost all of them. 

Sure, they’re built for playoff success, and the Barry Trotz team-first mentality could take them a long way. But, first, they need to use the time allotted over the next two weeks to solve many issues that have cropped up in their game and threaten to derail a promising year.

BELIEVE

I am not a conspiracy theorist by nature, never have been, but I’ll hop on the Twitter ‘they’re all out to get the Islanders’ bandwagon if Semyon Varlamov isn’t, at a minimum, a Vezina Trophy finalist. He’s simply been that good. For all the praising by fans at the statues of Trotz, and team president and general manager Lou Lamoriello, director of goaltending Mitch Korn could quietly erect his own right next to them.

The numbers are staggering. 33 games, 19 wins, 1.99, .930 and seven shutouts. Rob Vollman of hockey abstract created a ‘quality start’ percentage, like the one used in baseball, and Varlamov is at 66%. The league average is 53%. Goaltending simply wins in the playoffs. A hot goaltender can take you a long way and cover-up for other deficiencies.

Varlamov is beyond hot, he’s been fantastic.

Semyon Varlamov

The Islanders defense has excelled at their primary responsibility this season – keep the puck out of your net. In combination with Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin, they have allowed the second-fewest goals against in the entire league, trailing only the Vegas Golden Knights. 

Mathew Barzal is one of the most dynamic forwards in the tournament. While he has been struggling, scoring once in his past 13 games, his struggles mirror that of the entire offense and have something to do with feeding Leo Komarov instead of Kyle Palmieri.

Simply put, he’s a game-changer. 

UNCERTAINTY

The New York Islanders likely would have missed the postseason last year, had it not been for the Coronavirus pause. Instead, they qualified and got a three-month reset before the bubble playoffs began, and they started their trek to the conference finals.

This year will be different. 

What transpired in Vancouver as the Canucks battled a serious outbreak of the virus will likely provide New York with a week and a half pause between their final game against the Boston Bruins next Monday and the opener of the first round.

‘We Know It’s Not Over’: Islanders Lineup, Matchups and Game Notes vs. Buffalo

Will that be enough to erase from their memory the fatigue and defensive lapses? To rediscover their scoring touch? To fix an abysmal power play?

Speaking of the power play, that is the most pressing issue that could send the Islanders home. It’s absolutely inept, and everyone from the coaching staff to fans is left scratching their heads why. The zone entries are a mess, there is no movement or flow, and the only player willing to shoot is Oliver Wahlstrom. In tight, close playoff games, simply one power play can make the difference between winning and losing.

New York has dominated inferior opponents in the East division this year, going 22-4-2 against the Rangers, New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia Flyers and Buffalo Sabres. None of those teams are going to the playoffs. Against potential opponents in round one, the Islanders have sputtered to the tune of 9-11-3. And that was before the Bruins were reborn.

The Islanders can be considered favorites to go a long way in this season’s cup tournament. They have the mentality, experience and coaching. But due to the issues we’ve seen over the last four weeks, they could also be a first-round out.

It’s really anyone’s guess.

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