As unlikely as it seemed in September, the Islanders have succeeded and thrived this season. Even though many fans and analysts alike had predicted this team dead-last in the standings six months ago, the Islanders have proven everyone wrong. With four games left in the season, the Islanders have a 45-26-7 record, one of their best since the Dynasty era. They are three points behind the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Washington Capitals, and have a chance at Playoff glory. Although the Islanders are all but a shoe-in for a postseason berth, there is one lingering goal that remains to be unfulfilled: clinching a division title. If everything goes according to plan, the Islanders have a real possibility of doing something they haven’t done in over three decades.
While Playoffs are the expectation, positioning is key. For the Islanders to have good fortune in the Playoffs, they prefer to face weaker competition; such as Montreal, Columbus, or Carolina. If the Islanders stay in second or third place, they will inevitably play Pittsburgh, a team significantly better on paper with more Playoff success. Should this happen, there is a large opportunity for a first round exit. A faceoff against wild card team would realistically help the Islanders advance into the latter rounds of the playoffs.
As mentioned before, the Islanders are only three points behind the Capitals, which doesn’t necessarily mean the Islanders can’t pull ahead. With a near identical record, there’s an equal chance for any of the top three teams to win the division. This can’t just be assumed, however. Scheduling is a huge factor that will affect the outcome of a division title.
To end the season, the Islanders will face Buffalo, Toronto, Florida, and Washington. While this may not seem like a favorable schedule for New York, it’s easier than it appears.
Buffalo needs no introduction. Despite a nice 10-game win streak a few months ago, the Sabres are near the bottom of the Atlantic Division and are mathematically eliminated from playoff contention. Their last regulation win came in early February against the Capitals. While a Sabres victory can’t be ruled out, an upset isn’t to be expected in this situation. The Islanders will most likely win this game.
Toronto will be an interesting game. As the nemesis of Long Island, John Tavares once again returns to Nassau Coliseum where the Islanders actually have an opportunity of winning another huge game. The Maple Leafs haven’t had an easy time against the Islanders, losing both games against them in embarrassing fashion.
Their first matchup on Dec. 29 of last year was an extremely one-sided affair, with Mathew Barzal scoring a natural hat trick and winning 4-0. Then, in one of the most memorable regular season games in NHL history, the Islanders dominated the Maple Leafs 6-1 on Feb. 28. If the intensity inside Nassau Coliseum is anything like it was one month ago, the Islanders have a convincing chance at victory, and will get their revenge on the “Tr91tor” in the process.
The Florida Panthers are a hard one to decipher. Although they’ve recently been eliminated from Playoff contention, they have a tendency to go on a hot streak at the end of the season. While elimination will take the wind out of their sails, an upset isn’t unlikely.
By all circumstances, the Islanders should be the favorites to win this game. However, the Islanders lost both times they’ve had to face them, losing 3-2 in overtime on Oct. 24, and losing again 4-2 on Nov. 10. This game will hopefully result in a Islanders win, since they’ll probably be playing with intensity to head into the Playoffs.
Finally, the Capitals game. While they have the division lead as of now, the Islanders absolutely need to play a hard-fought game to win. This game has the potential to decide who clinches the division title, so the Islanders need to play an energetic brand of hockey. Despite the fact the Capitals have everything going right for them, the Islanders can manage a victory if everything goes according to plan.
The Penguins, who are ahead of the Islanders via tiebreaker, have one of the easiest schedules in the league. Despite playing a juggernaut in the Nashville Predators today and a surging playoff contender in the Carolina Hurricanes on Mar. 31, the rest of their games are against severely inferior opponents. They’ll play the Red Wings twice and the Rangers once, which are all almost guaranteed victories. For the Islanders to pass them, they need to start playing with even more ferocity and getting the puck in the back of the net more often.
The Capitals have a moderately hard schedule, as they’ll play Tampa, Florida, Montreal, and the Islanders. Even though it isn’t the easiest schedule, they can win the majority of those games. Florida and Montreal should likely be victories, while Carolina, Tampa, and the Islanders will be too close to call. Altogether, the Capitals are a difficult group to assess.
With all this information, the outcome is that the Islanders do have a chance at winning the division with a strong four games. So buckle up and enjoy the ride.