Shaky Islanders flirting with potential playoff nightmare
The Islanders were three seconds away from clinching a playoff berth on Tuesday night. Three seconds.
It was right there for them. The pair of late goals they scored while netminder Jaroslav Halak was on the bench capped a furious rally that drew New York even with the Flyers at 4–4 with 28 seconds remaining in regulation. And that tie was all the Isles needed. Once the game went to OT, they’d pocket a point and with it their second postseason berth in seven seasons. Win or lose, they’d move closer to securing second place in the Metropolitan Division and home ice in the opening round.
But while the Isles were counting their chickens, the Flyers decided to play out the game’s final 28 seconds. And so it was that Halak, all but staring at the clock as it counted down, was caught off guard and Brayden Schenn’s harmless looking 69-footer trickled under him with just 2.1 seconds left on the clock.
Halak can say the shot hit his stick and fooled him, but that was just the end result. The real issue is that he wasn’t ready for the shot in the first place. Watch the replay again and look at his positioning. He’s almost in repose until he sees the puck whip off Schenn’s stick. By then, Halak was headed to the blooper reel.
And so, instead of imagining who they might meet in the first round, the Isles were left to retreat to their dressing room and consider another possibility:
Missing the postseason entirely.
Sure, the odds remain heavily stacked in their favor. Sportsclubstats.com lists them as having a 99.5% chance of making the cut, down just 0.4% after last night’s dispiriting loss. And with two games remaining, the Isles are in complete control of their fate. Earn just a single point in either of those contests and it doesn’t matter what anybody else does. Get to 99 points and they’re in. Simple as that.
But neither of those games is a gimme, especially for a young team that looks emotionally vulnerable and extremely shaky after winning just three of its past 10. The last thing it needed was a shocking softie like Schenn’s scored against an otherwise stalwart player like Halak.
New York travels to Pittsburgh on Friday to play a Penguins team that the Isles have already beaten three times in four games this season. But the Pens too are feeling the heat after blowing a 3–0 lead and their own chance to clinch on Tuesday night in Ottawa. They won’t have any trouble matching New York’s motivation or desperation.
Perhaps still needing that elusive point, the Isles return home on Saturday night for the festivities that commemorate the final regular-season game at Nassau Coliseum. (SI magazine is running a feature on the old barn by Jack Dickey in this week’s issue.) If tired, sluggish legs after the previous night’s game, a long ceremony and the pressure of a must-win don’t do them in, a Columbus team that is 12-1-1 in its past 14 just might.
Of course, it might not come to that. If the Senators fail to run the table against the Rangers (Thursday night) and Flyers (Saturday afternoon), they’ll punch the Isles’ ticket for them. And it’s hard to believe that New York will come out as flat on Friday and Saturday as it did on Tuesday night when it allowed the lottery-bound Flyers to build up a 4–1 lead before finally engaging them.
But if the Isles couldn’t take a point away from that game, at least they were given lessons about preparation and focus. We’ll see what they do with them in their final two games.
The numbers game
• The Ducks can clinch the West’s top seed if they beat the Stars tonight.
• Alain Vigneault of the Rangers is now the second coach in NHL history to win the Presidents’ Trophy three times. He's still one behind Scotty Bowman (4). Vigneault is also the fourth to win it with two different teams (also the Canucks in 2010-11 and ’11-12). The other coaches: Bowman (Penguins, Red Wings), Mike Keenan (Blackhawks, Rangers) and Joel Quenneville (Blues, Blackhawks).
• The Wild have set single-season franchise records of 45 total wins and 23 on the road. Their 11-game win streak in away games is one shy of the single-season NHL mark set by the Red Wings in 2005-06. (Minnesota’s final two games are in Nashville and St. Louis.) The Wild are also only the third team in the last 80 years to allow no more than two goals in 11 consecutive road tilts during a given season. The others: the 1998-99 Stars (18 straight) and 2001-02 Kings (12).
• Further proof of hockey’s expanding global footprint: A 15-year-old from Israel could be the first player selected in Saturday’s OHL draft.
• I’m not sure there’s wide agreement with Craig Button’s assessments of prospects Ivan Provorov and Noah Hanifin, but he’s right in suggesting there's a change in perceptions heading into this year's draft.
• If some Russian lawmakers have their way, Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk will never play in the Olympics again.