One of the most stunning stories from the first round of the playoffs has been the performance of the New York Islanders, who tied up their series with the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday with a 6-4 win. The Penguins were the prohibitive favourites to come out of the East this season after loading up at the trade deadline, adding Brendan Morrow and Jarome Iginla to an already stacked forward corps and beefing up their defence with the hulking Douglas Murray.
Meanwhile, you would think the Islanders would just be happy to be in the playoffs at all, having missed the playoffs for five straight seasons, finishing fifth in the Atlantic Division each time. Very few people even gave the Islanders a chance in this series, with most predicting that the Penguins would win in five games, since predicting a sweep is a little too bold.
But the Islanders have done more than just show up. They’ve surprised the Penguins with their speed and tenacity and reminded everyone why there are still question marks surrounding Marc-Andre Fleury. It’s the classic tale of David versus Goliath, if Goliath had awful goaltending.
What fascinates me is how these Islanders were constructed. They’re a team full of cast-offs and misfits cobbled together by a general manager under extremely limiting financial constraints.
Perhaps it is the hard work, but there is still a lot of talent on the Islanders roster. Their top six has four first-round picks. They have another first rounder on their third line centred by a player who has been an AHL scoring machine since 2006. There is a lot of skill, even if they aren’t all house-hold names. A couple more performances like they had in Game 2 or 3 of their series though, and maybe a few analysts will begin to credit the Islanders for being a real good hockey team. It’s not just a playoff thing—they’ve been good for a while.
Other than an ill-timed penalty against a deadly Penguins powerplay, the Islanders have out-played the Pens in this series. They out-shot Pittsburgh 31-20 at even strength in the third game and appeared to beat them in scoring chances. In three games, they have out-shot the Penguins 86-61 at even strength.
There are a lot of highly-enjoyable storylines to follow during the playoff chase. During the Game 48-to-Game 82 stretch in a normal season, a couple of teams that don’t belong fall out of the chase (last season it happened to be the Minnesota Wild and the Toronto Maple Leafs) but this season there’s some added excitement because teams that specifically don’t belong are in the chase.
The Toronto Maple Leafs will make the playoffs for the first time in nine years—the playoff team with the worst shot differential numbers since the 2002 Montreal Canadiens, as per Elliotte Friedman at Hockey Night in Canada. The hockey blogosphere is abuzz with the success of the new-look Columbus Blue Jackets, or “New York Rangers West”, or quite simply “Lumbus” and as of Sunday night, they hold a slippery grip on the 8th spot.
So it’s not the low number of games that is keeping Anaheim and Toronto in the playoffs, Pittsburgh and Chicago picking up points like gangbusters, and Florida unable to make a save while the New Jersey Devils could become the best team to miss the postseason probably ever. There’s something else happening this season. Perhaps the short turnaround, the extra days off, the more four- and five-game weeks is giving an added boost to certain teams. Who knows.
Anything you can do I can do better. Even if it’s nothing. (Bruce Bennett, Getty Images)
A grand total of 17 trades were made on April 3rd, most of them happening close to the noon (Western) deadline, making it utterly pointless for TSN Tradecentre to start at 8 AM and making it even more pointless for me to wake up at 5 AM Pacific to run a livechat for Pass it to Bulis. If you thought Archi Zuber and Kyle Smith had it tough with their trade deadline drinking game, I was mainlining Beaver Buzz after 3 hours of sleep and taking care of a 16-month-old child at the same time. You punks in the East have it easy.
The biggest criticisms on trade deadline day are frequently reserved for the teams that do nothing. Since I was running a Canucks-centric trade deadline chat, I saw a lot of frustration when the deadline came and went without a single trade for the Canucks, particularly with Roberto Luongo still sitting on the bench with a $5.3 million cap hit. But the Canucks didn’t really do nothing. The Derek Roy trade may not have happened on trade deadline day, but it was still a deadline deal.
So let’s extend things back to March 22nd, when the New Jersey Devils acquired Matt D’Agostini from the St. Louis Blues. That essentially gives us a two-week window of “trade deadline” trades. Things really kicked off in earnest when Pittsburgh traded Joe Morrow for Brendan Morrow and had me secretly hoping they were bringing Ethan Moreau out of retirement simultaneously.
There were 37 trades made during the 2 weeks leading up to the deadline. So which teams did the least? Six teams made just one trade: the Colorado Avalanche, Detroit Red Wings, Florida Panthers, Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Vancouver Canucks. Two teams, however, did absolutely nothing — the New York Islanders and Winnipeg Jets — and they’re both in very similar situations.
There’s a lot to be excited about on the Island, and a lot of good young talent stockpiled by a general manager who is savvier than his record indicates. If it weren’t for the penny-pinching owner who siphons gas from cars in the Nassau Coliseum parking lot to fill the team bus, there would be a lot to be happy about the following:
A particularly impressive first line centred by John Tavares, who does not seem at all fazed by the loss of P.A. Parenteau.
An excellent top four that is now bolstered by the addition of Lubomir Visnovsky. He’ll join Travis Hamonic, Andrew MacDonald and Mark Streit.
One of the most exciting two-way players in the game in Frans Nielsen, a killer on breakaways and definitely the inspiration for this blog’s name.
It would be fun if you added to that “the best goaltender since the 2005 lockout” to the equation since the New York Islanders are now the team that owns the rights to Tim Thomas and his suspended contract.
Of course, the point of the trade that ‘brought’ Thomas to Long Island certainly wasn’t made under the pretext that the Islanders are an elite goaltender away from competing. Even though Thomas isn’t playing and isn’t collecting the money on his contract, it still counts against the salary cap. The Boston Bruins, a team right at the upper-limit and needing to shuffle the deck a little to have space to make another move, had a need to get him off the books. The Islanders, at the other end of the Capgeek chart, don’t have the financial resources to pay up to the salary cap. If they get pay the salary floor each year, that’s an accomplishment.
95% of Backhand Shelf readers know this, so bear with me for a sec, but a couple background sentences for the select others who don’t: My Dad and my Father-in-Law were both a part of the Islanders dynasty that won four Cups in the early ’80s, and I myself was a player at Islanders camp in 2007, and spent that season in their farm system. I was born with New York Islanders blood, and that’s the way it is, was, and will be.
Over the past few years, the “will be” statement was sort of up in the air. There was the realistic possibility that the Isles would move, given their current terrible building and their owner’s inability to get a new one built. I may have passively rooted for the Islanders had they moved to Quebec City or Kansas City or Seattle or wherever, but it wouldn’t have been the same. I desperately wanted the Islanders to stay the Islanders so the history created there didn’t become obscure trivia, so the loyal fans got to keep their team, and for dozens of other reasons.
As most people know, Brooklyn is on Long Island. The team can keep their name, their history, and the fabric of who they are.