Islanders on final turns of ‘rollercoaster’ season but still control destiny

Bo Horvat Islanders
(AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

EAST MEADOW, N.Y. — If it was up to Bo Horvat, his New York Islanders would have already sewn up a playoff spot and could spent the final week of the regular season getting primed for a Stanley Cup push. 

That is a pretty obvious sentiment, but that is not how it has gone for the Islanders this season.

“I’d rather be a lock instead of waiting for the last friggin’ game like it seems like it’s gonna come down to — the same thing it happened last year,” Horvat told amNewYork. “At the same time, we’re playing playoff hockey from here on out and we’ve been doing so for what feels like the last month or so leading into the playoffs. To have that mindset is great already.”

Entering Tuesday night’s matchup against the juggernaut crosstown rival Rangers, the Islanders somewhat remarkably still control their own destiny. The Pittsburgh Penguins’ overtime loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Monday night kept a one-point advantage in New York’s favor (85 points to 84) for third place in the Metropolitan Division, which carries an automatic playoff berth rather than dealing with Wild Card spots.

Both Horvat and his linemate, All-Star Mathew Barzal, used the identical analogy to sum up this 2023-24 season: a roller-coaster.

The last three months alone have seen the Islanders’ playoff hopes appear to go up in smoke on multiple occasions, but also surge to appear as concrete as ever.

From Dec. 12 to Jan 27. they lost 15 of 21 games, including a horrid stretch in which they won just three of 12 that featured an overtime loss to the NHL-worst Chicago Blackhawks on Jan. 19 and the firing of head coach Lane Lambert and the hiring of Patrick Roy. After two straight wins on Feb. 5 and 8, they lost five of six putting them in seventh place in the eight-team Metropolitan Division on Feb. 25.

“We lost that game in overtime in Chicago months ago and people were writing us off,” Barzal said. “The morale was low.”

New York Islanders’ Mike Reilly (2), Casey Cizikas (53) and Mathew Barzal (13) await a faceoff during the first period of the team’s NHL hockey game against the Nashville Predators in Elmont, N.Y., Saturday, April 6, 2024. (AP Photo/Peter K. Afriyie)

Roy’s new system appeared to sink in, though, and in no time, the Islanders looked like a playoff team once more, reeling off six-straight wins to get back in the playoff picture. That illusion came crashing down when they followed it up with six straight losses and eight defeats in 10 to crash back out of the playoff standings only for them to reel off four straight entering Tuesday night’s clash with the Rangers to snatch the No. 3 spot in the division.

“It’s been a rollercoaster, especially on the emotional and mental side of being in it and then not being in it,” Horvat said. “But there’s no quit here. We just have so much value and pride and heart in here. Nobody in this room ever thought for a second that we’d be out of it. We battled. We battled all year, we battled as of late, and we have to keep battling all the way to the end.”

In no way has it gone to plan for a team that implored a desire to not repeat last year where they had to wait until the final days of the regular season to clinch a playoff spot. But here they are with that overarching goal still in reach.

“It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster lately, but it’s been fun,” Barzal added. “At the start of the year, you don’t want to be in the position where every game is so tight, you’d rather have 10 more points but at the end of the day, it is what it is and this is fun right now. This is a battle and you’re so dialed in. Everything I do personally is to be at my best… everyone here is the same way. It’s fun to be in that groove.”

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