Monday, March 9, 2015

Boss Fight

It feels silly to need any more validation of this New York Islanders season.  The Isles have been one of the best and most consistent teams since the opening puck drop of the first game.  Even as we fans have bitten our nails and furrowed our brows through the team's post-All Star break injury issues, they have stayed atop the division.  However, even though they kept that lead in the Metropolitan, the Islanders have watched as the rival New York Rangers have crept up behind them in the standings.  The Rangers supplanted the Pittsburgh Penguins as the second place team trying to knock the Isles from their perch by winning 12 of their last 19 games.  A number of NHL power rankings have moved the Rangers ahead of the Islanders.  Some put the Rangers at the top of the league.

Thing is, I can't really argue.  Other than to light up the douche train, of course.  The Isles have scratched and clawed their way to their consistency in recent weeks, winning tough games and losing a couple of bad ones.  The Rangers just keep winning.  Even more amazing is that they've done it without their all-world goalie Henrik Lundqvist.  It's been remarkable, exciting and really, really, really annoying.  Annoying not only because they're the friggin' Rangers, but because they have one of the highest team SPSv% (PDO) in the NHL.  For the uninitiated, head over here for an explanation (skip down to the SPSv% [PDO] section).  When a team like the Rangers is showing an SPSv% of 101.6 it assumes they are riding a hot shooting streak or hot goaltender (or both).  As they are the enemy, I like any stat that indicates they may be due for some bad luck.  Problem is those values guarantee nothing.  While plenty of teams with a high SPSv% did actually regress down and hit the predicted bad luck streak, some didn't.  Most notable are the 2010-11 Boston Bruins and the 2012-13 Chicago Blackhawks.  Both ended the year with a SPSv% above 102 and went on to win the Stanley Cup.  (Note: I understand that the 2012-13 season was only 48 games, but I think the point still applies.)  While the numbers show they are due to slow down, it's no sure thing the Rangers do.

Which really, really sucks.

Why? Of course there's the obvious reason, but objectively it's because the Islanders finally have a favorable schedule as they conclude the season.  Starting this Friday, they have 13 games remaining.  Eight of those are at home.  There are only two remaining back-to-back sets of games.  There's a few tough opponents, but half of those are Western teams.  From the East, the Isles will play Montreal, Detroit and Pittsburgh with the Penguins being the only road game of those three.  As chaotic as the Isles' February schedule was, their March/April one gives them the respite they were working so hard to reach.

The only thing in the way of a hopefully calm and collected final 13 games are those annoying New York Rangers.

A mid-March regular season game between two teams already close to locks for playoff berths isn't the usual recipe for a "game-of-the-year".  They're usually a "don't injure our guys and we won't injure yours" love-fest.  But it's Islanders versus Rangers.  Both teams are elite squads.  The latter has been chasing the former all year.  The former has beaten the latter in three of four previous games.  The one game the Rangers did win was a classic comeback that was shaping up to be another victory for the Islanders.  All these things have fed the hype machine and it's primed to spit out a nauseating amount of hot takes from the hockey media..

The Isles have navigated this gauntlet of a season as well as any team in the league.  They've stayed poised through the highs and lows, even as the fanbase was screaming about the sky falling. Injuries to key guys have not had the devastating consequences some may have feared they would.  They've come this far and the end is in sight.

Even though the Isles have lead the Rangers in the standings all year and have already won the season series, in my head the Rangers are still the heavyweight.  They've got arguably the best goalie in the world.  They've been to the playoffs and had deep runs regularly over the last decade.  It makes me shiver to bring it up again, but they did wind up in the Stanley Cup Final last year.  So while this next game may not be a Game 7, it's the Super Macho Man bout that leads up to four rounds of Mike Tyson-level battles in the post-season.

Keeping the Rangers a few points back would do wonders for my sanity.  Not unlike having a few power-ups in hand before walking through those big scary castle doors.  The best games are the ones that force you to keep your skills sharp.  Playing a playoff-level game in mid-March isn't a bad thing unless there's an injury to a key player.  The more high-intensity situations the team can experience, the better in my opinion.  If the Islanders do eventually lose their top spot in the division, they have time to respawn and make their way back.

Or they could do what they've done a few times this season and just beat the Rangers and extend their cushion like my sanity is begging them to do.  They've surprised me a number of times already.

What's one more?


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