Why the tight play of the stretch run has these Islanders at their most ‘comfortable’

On Tuesday morning, about 10 hours before he would exit the ice with a possible head injury against the Maple Leafs, I was talking to Brock Nelson and trying to get at the idea that the Islanders have started to find their groove over the past month because this is the time of year when games start to resemble the playoffs.

It’s not quite the full-tilt atmosphere of playoff hockey, but especially for teams whose fate is still in doubt, there’s less time and space on the ice and the game is tighter.

That’s how this Islanders group historically has thrived, and it’s how they’ve reverted to playing without Mat Barzal over the past month.

“We want to play tight games,” Nelson said. “I think we’re comfortable in those situations. Trying to stay patient offensively at times. Everyone’s gonna have offensive pushes, we’ll have ours. [Opposing] teams are probably saying the same things, you just have to weather a bit. We’ll have solid goaltending, try to stay structured defensively and you get your opportunities offensively. You want to take advantage.”

With six wins in their past eight games, the Islanders seemingly have already started approaching games with a playoff mindset.
Paul J. Bereswill for the NY Post

Twenty-one months after they last played a playoff game and under a different coach, this is still the Islanders at their level best. A team that can force you to go 200 feet while locked in a closet.

“I feel like we’ve been in that [playoff] mindset for a little bit,” Nelson said. “Every game seems to be, not quite make-or-break, but it’s crucial in terms of standings and fighting for those wild-card spots right now. Mentally, I think we have to be as sharp as ever.”

It’s striking that even during Tuesday’s 7-2 win over the Maple Leafs, a fast-paced game in which the Islanders didn’t have their hands on the reins until the second period, neither team reached 30 shots on net. This wasn’t quite the sort of game you would say played into their hands … but it wasn’t as far off as it looked at first glance either.

And with the prognosis on Nelson unclear — the Islanders didn’t practice on Wednesday, so there is no new information on his status — that’s the reason to think the Isles can complete their playoff push even if they need to do it without him or Barzal.

Brock Nelson #29 of the New York Islanders is checked by Timothy Liljegren #37 of the Toronto Maple Leafs during the first period at UBS Arena on March 21, 2024 in Elmont, New York.
The Islanders may need to complete their push for the playoffs without Brock Nelson, who led the team with 65 points before he was injured Tuesday against the Maple Leafs.
NHLI via Getty Images

This is a team that knows exactly how it needs to play, and it’s not one that has an overdependence on its stars. Remember, they played much of the past month down Jean-Gabriel Pageau as well as Barzal.

Much as the early-season discussion in the dressing room was about a newfound aggression — and there are still times under Lane Lambert when the defensemen will activate more easily in the neutral zone — it’s no coincidence that the talk has turned back to structure and prudence when the games have started to matter.

It’s a return to what they are comfortable with, what they have won with and what they are now winning with.

“I think in general throughout the league, when you have teams that are either adjusting to a new system or new coaching staffs, it’s one of those things that — not that games don’t feel as important [early on], it’s more so that you’re going out there and trying to find your way, whether it’s individually or as a team,” Kyle Palmieri said. “And sometimes it takes time to get there and get in a rhythm. It just took us a little longer to find that.”

There are two other factors that make a big difference here.

First, of the remaining 10 games, Ilya Sorokin easily could start as many as eight. That is a trump card the Islanders have over both their closest rivals in the playoff race — especially the Penguins — and just about any other team they face.

Ilya Sorokin #30 of the New York Islanders defends the net against Blake Wheeler #26 of the Winnipeg Jets as the New York Islanders defeat the Winnipeg Jets 2-1 in the 3rd period during a regular season matchup at UBS Arena.
The presence of Ilya Sorokin and his 2.36 GAA is an advantage the Islanders will have over most of the competition for a wild-card playoff spot.
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

With Sorokin, they are almost always able to weather a run of poor play, case in point being the first 30 minutes on Tuesday when Sorokin made an acrobatic stick save on Erik Gustafsson, stoned David Kampf on a shorthanded break and stopped Auston Matthews from point-blank range after a bout of defensive-zone sloppiness.

“Those are the momentum shifters you need to win big games,” Cal Clutterbuck said.

Second, this is no longer about overcoming a bad math equation but about closing things out. Games in hand are not an overriding issue anymore; the Islanders’ playoff chances sit at 76.4 percent, according to MoneyPuck.

The Penguins had lost four straight before Wednesday’s clutch win over the Avalanche; the Panthers dropped a must-have game Tuesday to the lowly Flyers and will see the Maple Leafs and the Rangers in their next two games. Detroit, Buffalo, Ottawa and Washington are effectively out of the race, if not mathematically eliminated.

Make no mistake, it still won’t be easy for the Islanders to close things out while missing their top two scorers. But this is more than doable.

In a perfect world …

It should be stressed that we know next to little about Barzal’s status and it is unlikely that a Lou Lamoriello-led organization will be forthcoming about Nelson’s, either.

The Isles have maintained hope that Barzal will be back by the end of the regular season, though it’s getting tough to piece together a timeline for that to happen because he has yet to skate on his own.

Mathew Barzal #13 of the New York Islanders in action against the Ottawa Senators during their game at UBS Arena on February 14, 2024 in Elmont, New York.
The potential return of Mathew Barzal in the playoffs could make the Islanders one of the toughest outs.
Getty Images

Still, there are three weeks to go. If that is enough time for both players to recover, and if the Islanders can get themselves into the playoffs, you can bet no one will want to see them on the other side in a first-round series.

The prospect of facing a full-strength, veteran Islanders team notorious for overperforming in the playoffs is a scary one. Especially if you are a Hurricanes team that just lost Andrei Svechnikov to an ACL tear or the Rangers or Devils, both of whom rely heavily on speed and skill factors that begin to fade in playoff hockey.

Opportunity lost?

If you are rooting for an Islanders-Rangers first-round series, which is to say, if you are a citizen of hockey New York, the Blueshirts’ loss to Carolina on Tuesday was a blow.

Realistically, the easiest way for that local duel to happen would be for the Islanders to get the first wild-card spot and the Rangers to jump Carolina and New Jersey in the standings — a long shot, yes, but not impossible.

New York Rangers center Mika Zibanejad (93) controls the puck against New York Islanders left wing Zach Parise (11) during the third period at Madison Square Garden in New York. Thursday, Dec. 22, 2022. The New York Rangers won 5-3.
As fun as it would be to watch the Islanders and Rangers battle in the first round, the current playoff standings are making that possibility increasily unlikely.
Noah K. Murray-NY Post

The Rangers sweeping their two games against the ‘Canes, though, was something of a requirement for that hope to come to fruition.

They now sit eight points behind Carolina, which has two games in hand. As well as the Rangers have played lately, that seems a bridge too far.

The second round, though, beckons.

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