Tuesday, March 17, 2015


The tune-up game against the rival New York Rangers didn't go well for the Islanders.  The game itself was an exciting, playoff-style affair that cost me some bragging rights and fingernails.  What no one realized at the time was it was a harbinger for things to come in the two games that followed.

The main obstacle to victory for the Isles against the Rangers was goaltender Cam Talbot, who is in the midst of one of those amazing backup goalie winning streaks that make the hockey media swoon.  He deserves all that praise as he's carried the Rangers to a ridiculous 13-2-3 record in the 18 games since the start of February.  While there was plenty for Isles fans to hold on to - the team out-shot and out-played the Rangers for decent stretches of time - the result was absolute.  So was the reaction of giddy Ranger fans.  Even though the Isles were still in first place following the game, the Rangers had closed the gap to a single point and had more than enough games in hand.  The inevitability of the Rangers overtaking the Isles was palpable within both fanbases.  The Isles have cruised the fast lane all year but the Rangers had suddenly come screaming up behind them, tailgating and flashing their lights like a Hamptons EDM club.

Unfortunately, that inevitability came to fruition later that week as the Rangers continued to win games with their goaltending and defense.  The Islanders in turn continued to lose tough games in which the team played really well but were victims of a stellar opposing goalie.  It was a sad version of Ranger Game Groundhog Day.

In the next game against the Ottawa Senators, the Isles ran into Andrew Hammond.  Andrew Hammond is rewriting NHL record books right now.  The next day, they played the Montreal Canadiens and Carey Price, who is not only a lock for the Vezina Trophy as this year's best goalie but may also win the Hart Trophy as league MVP - something only 6 goalies have ever done.

It was the most frustrating way to watch the team lose.  They played pretty well and just didn't get the bounces required to win.  That's never the best side of a fan debate to take as you basically have to argue the existence of voodoo, wizardry and bullshit (copyright @Steve_Dangle - My condolences to Leafs fans as I know your pain).  A number of team blogs and beat writers did their best to ease the panicking fanbase.  Unsurprisingly, it didn't help to change the attitude.  I myself have been fighting the urge to freak out.  My dueling optimistic and pessimistic sides have basically rendered me catatonic like a deer in headlights.  I hoped by remaining silent it would all go away and go back to the way things were.  Then the team went to Chicago to play the Blackhawks.

Turns out those headlights were attached to a Mack truck.  The Isles looked worse than any of the previous three losses, getting run all over the ice by a great team playing a great game.  The fact that starting goalie Jaroslav Halak didn't travel with the team due to a minor injury added a metric ton of TNT to an already super-heated volcano of pessimism.

The Islanders left the Windy City with their first four-game losing streak of the season.  Granted it's mid-March, so that's a vast improvement over previous years.  Also, while the Rangers are steamrolling the conference, the other teams in the East have floated alongside the Isles in mediocrity.  Personally, I use this fact as my main focus when the worry-monster rears it's familiar head.

"It could really be much, much worse."

It's also been a bit of a revolving door to the trainer's room for the team.  Every team in the NHL deals with nagging injuries this late in the season and the Isles are no different.  Luckily most of the injuries seem to be minor (with the exception of Mikael Grabovski), but the effects are noticable.  Top winger Kyle Okposo returned from his eye injury but has looked to be a step slow.  Top defenseman Nick Leddy has missed every game of the losing streak, which is not a coincidence.  Head coach Jack Capuano is also sitting players for "maintenance days".  I understand the logic since even with the recent struggles, the Isles are going to make the playoffs.  Making sure guys don't make any of the usual nagging injuries worse is admirable.  But it also fuels the rage of fans who just want the losing streak to end as they watch an inferior lineup start every game.

Who knows, though.  Maybe it's best to follow the lead of the coaches and look at the big picture.  The Isles have lost first place in the division and with the new playoff format flip-flopping between second and third in the division is strictly about home-ice advantage.  The Pittsburgh Penguins are struggling just as much and only have one game in hand so the Isles are still in the driver's seat for that.  Over all, it would take quite a collapse for the Islanders to miss the playoffs so there's lots to be positive about.

But man, it's a tough perspective to have.  Especially when the headlights are so bright in your eyes.


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