Throughout the bulk of the New York Islanders’ first 52 games of the season — which featured record-setting road trips, massive COVID outbreaks, a slew of injuries — the message coming from the organization was that hope was being held out for one big run to get them back into the thick of the playoff hunt.
Game No. 53 against the Colorado Avalanche seems to have changed that tune ever so slightly following a nightmarish 4:21 of the third period that saw the Islanders concede four goals before a frantic comeback fell just short in a 5-4 loss.
The Islanders are 21-24-8 and 23 points out of the final Eastern Conference playoff spot with 29 games to play. Their hopes of making the postseason stand at roughly 3% — and it appears to be sinking in that this team won’t be appearing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for a fourth-straight season.
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“I hate to see our guys who have been around for a long time who care so much,” head coach Barry Trotz said on Tuesday. “We want to do better but it’s been a mentally crushing year and this group has ground really hard for the last two years — a little more actually. I’ve demanded a lot and they’ve changed the way they’ve played. This year has become very difficult.”
The rash of hurdles, pitfalls, and hazards certainly didn’t help the Islanders meet incredibly lofty expectations heading into the 2021-22 season where many — including this writer — chose them to represent the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Final. That’s what seemed like the next logical step for a team that had been defeated in the Stanley Cup semifinals by the Tampa Bay Lightning in each of the previous two seasons.
But the Islanders couldn’t find a way to recapture the magic — whether that’s because of exterior factors or the fact that they’re playing an 82-game season for the first time since 2019-20.
Now they’re relegated to playing for pride with an eye toward next season — a philosophy that’s all too familiar for a fan base supporting a franchise that had been irrelevant for the better part of 25 years — where the roster could begin undergoing some significant changes before the March 21 trade deadline. A jam-packed schedule provides one more challenge to contend with, too, as they play their final 29 games in just 49 nights.
“It hasn’t been a great season for us, but I can assure you that these guys care a lot… they care about the crest… they care about the fans, everything,” Trotz said. “I’m sure they’re going to respond like they always do… but there’s a lot of games. There might be some games where we might hit a wall… that’s a lot of hockey.
“That’s a lot of time mentally where you’ve got a test and you get wound up for that test and jacked up… we have 29 of those tests in the next 49 days. That’s tough, especially when it’s not going your way.”