The New York Islanders are on pace for 101 points, yet they still trail eight other teams in the Eastern Conference standings.
On Thursday night, the New York Islanders defeated the Chicago Blackhawks, 3-2. For many in the hockey community, this was their first and only exposure to the Islanders this season, as the game was broadcast nationally on NBC Sports Network.
Robin Lehner turned aside 19 of 21 shots, while Mathew Barzal tallied two goals — his eleventh and twelfth of the season. For the first time in his career, Devon Toews lit the lamp, sending the Islanders home with the win in overtime.
The Islanders are now 8-1-0 in their last nine games. The club has won its last five contests by a combined margin of 19-7 — a testament to its skilled offensive playmakers and flourishing defensive system.
To the 21-year-old Barzal, this club is something special. “The last two years I’ve been here, this is the most confident I’ve felt,” he told Andrew Gross of Newsday. “I’m just going into every game feeling like we can win.”
The Islanders keep winning, but so does everybody else.
In a normal year, the Islanders would be soundly in a playoff spot. The Islanders are on pace for 101 points this go-around, which is more than enough to qualify for the postseason. If the Islanders had this point total on Jan. 3 of last year, they would have landed in the first wild-card spot. If the Islanders had this point total on Jan. 3, 2017, they would have had the sixth-best record in the Eastern Conference.
Instead, the Islanders are currently on the outside looking in — the result of one of the most crowded playoff fields in recent memory. In fact, since divisional realignment started, no club with 48 points at this point of the season would have been out a playoff spot until the Islanders defeated the Blackhawks on Thursday night.
Sure, the season isn’t even half over — the All-Star Game is on Jan. 26.
But the Islanders are trying to gain separation in a crowded conference. The other teams aren’t making things easy.
Take the Penguins, for example. Pittsburgh is one of just two teams with a longer winning streak than the Islanders — the Lightning, another Eastern Conference foe, is the only other club that can claim that distinction.
Sidney Crosby, who has always haunted the Islanders with his playmaking ability, has 50 points in 37 games. Dating back to Dec. 13, Matt Murray is second in the league in wins, goals-against average and save percentage — behind only Lehner. Phil Kessel and Jake Guentzel both have 17 goals, while Casey DeSmith has settled into his role as the club’s starting netminder.
“I know our guys are so capable,” Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan told Jonathan Bombulie of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “They have the ability to be lethal when they’re on the same page and they execute and they do the little things.”
The Islanders are going to be hard-pressed to pass the Penguins in the standings, but they might have a better shot at leapfrogging the Columbus Blue Jackets, who are 7-2-1 in their last 10 contests.
Sergei Bobrovsky has the ability to carry a team, and he is 7-2-1 with a 2.15 goals-against average and .928 save percentage since Dec. 6. But the Jackets aren’t nearly as fearsome as the Penguins, who have Crosby, Kessel, Guentzel, Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin on the roster.
If the Islanders continue to play well, they will have little to worry about. The club controls its own destiny and has 43 more games to move up in the standings. If Barry Trotz has his way, the team will continue to climb the ladder.
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