The lockout-shortened season, with its compressed schedule and unique challenges, was bound to offer up a few surprises.
Here’s one to consider: the New York Islanders sneaking into the playoffs.
With roughly one month remaining and one week until the April 3 trade deadline, the Islanders find themselves in sole possession of ninth place and only two points behind the eight-place Rangers.
Sure, there have still been the phantom, cap-cushioning trades, the laughably low payroll and the maddening third-period meltdowns -- all things that have earned the organization derision across the league -- but there’s also been a resilience from a team that simply refuses to bow out.
Tuesday night’s 3-2 win over the Washington Capitals in D.C. was a prime example. It had all the makings of one of those losses that leaves fans either pulling out their hair, hitting the bottle, or both.
Up 2-0 within the first eight minutes of the game, New York squandered an early lead when the surging Capitals answered back with a pair of goals from Mike Ribeiro and John Carlson in the middle frame. Also worth mentioning is the fact that superstar center John Tavares and his first-line mates looked shaky in their own end.
Despite his poor defensive play earlier in the game, or perhaps fueled by it, Tavares refused to let the two points slip past. With 5:18 left in regulation, Tavares one-timed the puck past Caps goaltender Braden Holtby to snap a 2-2 draw, becoming the second player in the league to reach 20 goals this season, leading the Islanders to what might have been the biggest win of the season.
The Isles passed both the Capitals and Carolina Hurricanes with the victory.
Tavares, who has rightfully earned the reputation as one of the league’s elite offensive threats, seems to possess the rare ability to single-handedly will his club to wins. And if the team can clear its biggest hurdle -- reaching the postseason for the first time since 2007 -- his name must be in consideration for the Hart Trophy. It’s been five straight seasons without a playoff appearance, and Tavares seems determined not to let it reach six.
The Islanders’ stubbornness also presents an interesting situation for general manager Garth Snow. Save for his first year as GM in 2007 -- when he acquired Ryan Smyth as a high-profile rental in anticipation of a playoff push -- Snow has largely been a seller at the trade deadline. This season, he will likely try to retain his most valuable trade chips instead of shopping them for future picks and prospects.
Captain Mark Streit, the type of puck-moving defenseman who practically every team covets this time of year, is in talks with the Islanders to re-sign. Snow is also expected to try to lock up goaltender Evgeni Nabokov and veteran defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky. Teams might come calling on Brad Boyes or Matt Moulson (the Boston Bruins always seem interested in the latter, don’t they?) but Snow’s priority now has to be keeping some pieces in place rather than retooling for the following season.
Of course, there is always the possibility that the Islanders flame out and sputter toward the finish line when the stakes are high. But the chances of that happening are no different than that of the other handful of teams gridlocked in the middle of the standings.
Their goal differential isn’t great (11th in the East with a minus-11) and both the Rangers and Hurricanes have both at least a game in hand (the Canes have two), but the Islanders also have a manageable schedule the rest of the way.
They face the high-flying Pittsburgh Penguins only once more and are already done this season against the Montreal Canadiens. They have an important stretch in mid-April with a match against the Bruins sandwiched between two games against the Rangers and Flyers, but then move on to the downtrodden Panthers before closing out the season on a five-game road trip.
And while that seems a daunting task for a team on the cusp, consider this: The Islanders have been far better on the road (9-4-1) than at home (6-11-2).
Not since 2007 have the Islanders made the playoffs. This might be the year they return.