Relishing the bright lights and the big stage at Yankee Stadium might have been a bit easier for the beleaguered Islanders if they were not stumbling into Wednesday’s action with three straight losses.
Had they not surrendered those critical six points, they could have potentially positioned themselves to climb into a playoff spot with a win over their bitter divisional rivals. As it stands, the Islanders are seven points back of eighth-place Carolina and dead last in the Metropolitan Division.
Instead of approaching this game as one with concrete playoff implications, the Islanders are simply hoping the novelty of the outdoor event may jump-start a team that has otherwise stalled.
“To be honest, I think for us, the way things have been going, it may give us some life,” said coach Jack Capuano. “I think this game and this atmosphere could spark us a little bit.”
The Islanders had hoped the recent return of two key veterans, defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky and goaltender Evgeni Nabokov, would produce a similar effect. But with both players back in the lineup on Monday -- for Visnovsky, the first time playing after missing more than three months with a concussion -- the Islanders were still saddled with a demoralizing 6-3 loss to the Bruins.
The recent skid follows what was an otherwise encouraging stretch for the Islanders, who had picked up points in eight of 11 games to begin the month of January. The trio of losses would not be the end of the world if, say, they hadn’t dug themselves such a deep hole to begin the season.
Mini-slumps like the one the Islanders are experiencing now are practically unavoidable, but it’s the prolonged stretches of losing -- i.e. their 10-game losing streak earlier in the season -- that will come back to bite a team.
This is becoming an annual pattern for the Islanders -- struggle out of the gates, plummet down the standings, recover to make a late push -- and they are confronted with the same problem again.
“Every team is going to go through ups and certain downs. I think we can come out of it pretty quick and I think it’s been a great month for the team. What’s hurt us is what happened two months ago, when we were losing ten in a row,” Nabokov said. “We have to climb out of it and it’s not easy. Now every game feels like the last game. That’s what makes it tough.”
Though Nabokov’s veteran experience has been, at times, a steadying presence for the Islanders, the goaltending in general has left a lot to be desired.
Hampered by injuries, the 38-year-old Nabokov has made only 24 appearances this season -- his latest to relieve backup netminder Kevin Poulin, who gave up six goals to the Bruins Monday night.
The former Vezina Trophy finalist has posted a 9-8-5 record with a 2.85 goals against average and .905 save percentage. But Nabokov currently ranks 48th in the league in even-strength save percentage (.917) with Poulin coming in at 70th (.900).
This would seem to be an obvious, immediate and pressing need for general manager Garth Snow, though he has yet to address the area via trade or other avenues.
Snow pulled the trigger early in the year on a blockbuster deal to acquire goal-scorer Thomas Vanek from Buffalo in exchange for Matt Moulson, but the pending UFA has yet to inform the Islanders of whether he is interested in re-signing a long-term extension.
Another issue is the team’s injury-depleted defense. Missing the smooth-skating, puck-moving Visnovsky for much of the season hurt, and though he is now back in the lineup, the Islanders are down another one of their top blue-liners in Travis Hamonic.
Hamonic was placed on IR Tuesday, prompting the team to recall youngster Matt Donovan from Bridgeport of the American Hockey league.
“He’s a big part of our team and a big part of our D-corps, specifically,” said Hamonic’s defensive partner Andrew MacDonald. “It’s unfortunate.”
Saddled with hefty minutes on the back end, MacDonald has struggled recently. Averaging 25:47 of ice time per game, MacDonald looks gassed at times. He has a minus-6 rating over the last three games, and a minus-11 on the season. More precisely, he has a 43.4% Corsi rating, second-lowest on the team ahead of only enforcer Eric Boulton.
Whether Snow will re-sign the pending UFA to a contract extension or peddle him at the deadline remains to be seen, but the Islanders are trying to prevent what is now a pretty straight-forward case for Snow to be in selling mode when the March 5 trade deadline approaches.
That comeback campaign starts with the next pair of games against the Rangers, whom the Isles play twice in the next three days.
“We play them back-to-back, it’s a huge four points, it becomes an eight-point swing really,” said Matt Martin. “If we want to be able to catch these guys, these are games we have to win. We want to put ourselves in a good position before the Olympic break so we can go on a run when that’s done.”
Good news for the Islanders?
Their relative strength of schedule post-Olympic break may actually be conducive to another late-season run like last year when the Isles went 11-2-4 in the final 17 regular-season games to make the team’s first playoff appearance in six years.
Of the 22 games the Isles will play after the break, only six come against teams currently ranked in the top eight in their respective conferences. In the last two weeks of the season? Only one -- the downward-trending Montreal Canadiens.
Perhaps that is why the belief remains. Or maybe 23-year-old John Tavares is just used to saying the right things during the difficult dog days of a season, providing a buoy of hope to keep the team’s spirits afloat.
But the superstar center and 2013 Hart Trophy finalist thinks his Islanders still have a chance.
"Over the last six, seven weeks we’ve played much better hockey and made things much more interesting for themselves, but I think our whole division has played much better so it’s been tough to make up ground that way,” Tavares said. "We’re still right there. Things can turn. A week or two, if you can put some wins together, especially against a divisional opportunity, you can put yourself in an opportunity for a spot.
“We know we have to play a lot better than we have, a lot more consistent than we have over the course of that period of time,” Tavares continued. “But we know that window is still there for us.”