With every game proving to be a must-win affair, the New York Islanders continue to drop points and opportunities to gain ground in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
Tuesday night provided the latest disappointment in a 6-3 loss to the Buffalo Sabres — who had entered the night in seventh place in the Atlantic Division.
It dropped the Islanders to 17-20-6 on the season — an almost unthinkable record for a team that had made the Stanley Cup semifinals two straight years. But the strings pulled by general manager Lou Lamoriello during the offseason proved to be the incorrect ones when it came to improving the roster.
As has plagued the roster for the last four years, scoring remains the largest issue. They rank 29th of 32 NHL teams with an average of 2.42 goals per game.
While their defense is just in the top-10, there have been significant regressions in the team’s resolute philosophies; exacerbated by the long-term absence of Ryan Pulock and the inability to properly replace both Devon Toews and Nick Leddy.
So, a team that entered the year with Stanley Cup hopes has 39 games remaining while sitting 18 points behind the Boston Bruins for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot. With four games at hand, the Islanders could shrink that disadvantage to 10 while getting back on even terms in the games-played department should they win each of their next four games.
But nothing suggests the Islanders are capable of doing that right now.
They’ve allowed the first goal in nine of their last 10 games — forcing an offensively-challenged team to constantly play catch-up.
“It does put you in a tough spot,” Islanders captain Anders Lee said. “You have to take risks, you have to put yourself in a position to score and a team that executes might have an opportunity because of that.”
Considering how things have been going lately, any lapse in philosophy that leads to a mistake usually ends up in the back of the Islanders’ net more often than not.
“It’s been concerning for a while,” head coach Barry Trotz added.
The Islanders’ playoff hopes are already paper-thin, which makes going on a run as soon as possible all the more imperative.
That might not be easy considering home matchups on Thursday against the Boston Bruins and Sunday against the Montreal Canadiens are followed up by a five-game west-coast road trip that features a meeting with the best team in the NHL, the Colorado Avalanche.
“These are games we have to start having,” Lee said. “There are moments we have to start being successful in. That’s how we’ll be able to dig out of this. If [our current play] keeps happening, we’ll be looking on the wrong side.”
But the Islanders are already on the wrong side and are going to need unnaturally good play to get out of it.
The benchmark for most playoff teams is 100 points on the season and through 43 games, the Islanders have just 40. That means they’ll need to get 60 points from their remaining 39 games — or 76.9% of their remaining points that are on the table.
For a side that has picked up just 46.5% of their points over the first half of the season, that certainly appears to be far too big of an ask. So while the Islanders aren’t anywhere near mathematically eliminated from playoff contention yet, it’s safe to say that their playoff hopes are already on life support.