Perhaps, at the end of the day, the rival New York Rangers were chasing the wrong team. Their fanbase has been so laser-focused on catching the Boston Bruins that they missed the New York Islanders stumbling into another late-season free-fall.
President and GM Lou Lamoriello had a chance to fix what ailed the Islanders at the NHL trade deadline. Instead, he snagged a RW (Kyle Palmieri) and a third-line center (Travis Zajac) to fill a top-line LW role. Now the Islanders are in trouble.
The Islanders and Rangers will meet twice in the next three days, beginning on Thursday at Madison Square Garden, followed by a rematch Saturday at Nassau Coliseum. Sure, the Islanders spanked their cross-town rivals, 6-1, in their last meeting. But, go back two weeks, and the story is a little different. The Rangers beat the Islanders thoroughly, 4-1, before succumbing in overtime despite outplaying the Isles.
But this now a battle just to make the playoffs. The New York Islanders have given up their comfortable advantage with bone-dry offense and previous few wins in April.
The New York Rangers have been galloping every closer to Boston and the Islanders, and it’s time for the Islanders to be afraid. Very afraid.
Missing the playoffs could have far-reaching and serious implications on jobs and the future direction of the franchise. It should. This team is too good to be out of the playoffs, and losing Lee should not cripple the team, especially when one views how the Pittsburgh Penguins have soldiered up the East Division standings with half of their lineup in tatters.
As the youngest team in the league, the Rangers are playing with house money. Not expected to reach the playoffs this season, they can afford to play loose and relaxed, where the Islanders seem to be playing the exact opposite style. If the Islanders drop these two games, the Rangers would be a single, solitary point back of their rivals, and the game in hand the Islanders own is against the Boston Bruins, who are renewed since trading for Taylor Hall.
Yeah, be afraid. And it could have been avoided. And can be avoided.
This week, the Washington Capitals administered a three-game wipeout, and let’s be honest, the Islanders were never really ‘in’ any of them. The Islanders’ descent is markedly like last season before Coronavirus put the season on hold and provided the team with a big, red reset button.
The New York Islanders exploded in the bubble and went to the Eastern Conference Final.
Does this look like a team, right now, that can repeat without the ability to stop, gather themselves and restart? Or the team which would have missed the playoffs?
Why did Lomoriello acquire a third-line center and RW to replace LW power forward Anders Lee?
And this isn’t the first free fall, either. 2019-20, New York jumped to a 16-3-1 (83% point percentage) record before going 19-20-9 (49%) and likely would have missed the playoffs altogether if the season had gone a full 82-games.
This year, they found their groove, again racing out to a 19-6-4 (72%) mark, before being mired in their latest round of mediocrity, 10-9-1 (52%). The freefall began when Anders Lee was injured against New Jersey.
In 2018-19, the slump wasn’t as dramatic, as they went from 65% to 60%, but was a dip nonetheless.
Lamoriello acquired Kyle Palmieri to replace his injured captain and added Travis Zajac to the deal. Rumblings were he was ‘in’ in Taylor Hall for a hot minute, but Hall sincerely preferred Boston since last summer, when the Bruins were unable to offer up the cash required to sign the winger. Sure, Zajac hasn’t fit on a team with four-set centers, and Palmieri, inexcusably, has yet to take a shift with the team’s most dynamic offensive player, but that isn’t on Lou.
The New York Islanders simply need more. More from their top forwards. The numbers are painful to note:
Mathew Barzal – Five goals in 28 games, Hasn’t scored in 12 games, one assist in the past six.
Jordan Eberle – Seven goals in 28 games, one in the last nine.
Brock Nelson – No goals in the last nine games.
Josh Bailey – Six goals in 26 games, 2-3-5 past 10.
J.G Pageau – Five goals in 28 games, three in the past 15.
Kyle Palmieri – One goal in 10 games since joining the club.
Travis Zajac – One goal in 9 games since joining the club.
More alarming is the lack of defensive focus they have all shown over the past several weeks. The only goal Tuesday night was Barzal doing a lazy fly-by in the defensive corner, seemingly anticipating to break out from an impossible spot on the ice, before Daniel Sprong fired home.
Bailey is playing his worst hockey in five years. Nelson has struggled to construct any impact of any kind lately.
For his offensive woes, Pageau has been the lone bright spot, excelling on the penalty kill and in the faceoff circle. The defense is holding together, even though they have been forced to expend so much energy during two-minute shifts in their own zone, while their forward help runs around like chickens with their heads cut off.
Can they rebound? Sure, they can. But they need to start showing it. This is not the time of the year when you want to be playing not simply bad hockey but your worst hockey. As Washington Capitals GM Brian MacLellan said, “I think size and skill are how you win, especially in the playoffs. You can get bigger, but if you can’t play the game, I don’t think it contributes much to your lineup.”
Lamoriello didn’t get a LW to replace Lee, and that’s on him, but it’s time Trotz put Palmieri in the spot. Or a few people could lose their spots this summer.