Now that the NHL trade deadline has come and gone, most fans have one of two things to look forward to this hockey season: the playoffs or the draft lottery. For the New York Islanders, it’s the playoffs and this year the Islanders must make a run at home ice advantage in the first round instead of giving it away like they did with last years end of the year stumble at their old home of Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Could things have played out differently had they won home ice? Maybe. Which is why a stronger finish to this season will make getting out of the first round all more important. Beating a horse that not dead yet, I still believe it’ll be the Penguins, Rangers and Islanders battling for second from here on out and I think the Isles will win against either team in the first round with/without home ice, but before we go any further on the future, let’s take a look in the brief past to see how the teams improved at the deadline.
Pittsburgh has made trades all season long just to keep up with the Islanders and Rangers. They made another move in getting offensive defenseman Justin Schultz from the Edmonton Oilers. The Penguins acquired a player who fits their style but has zero confidence now. This was also a move that can help the Penguins for next year as well, so I don’t see Schultz as a rental. How much of an impact he will have will decide how quickly he gets his confidence back, but I don’t think Pittsburgh did enough to get themselves to second place.
The Rangers picked up another Staal in Carolina’s former captain, Eric. The Rangers have made it clear that they are going for a long cup run this year, but there’s just one problem: this is probably their last year to do it. This team is now old and will need to be retooled over the summer, leaving the Islanders and possibly the Penguins to take over. Make no mistake the Rangers can still be a consistent playoff team, but going after Lord Stanley after this year will be more difficult.
The Islanders went the >”We got who?!” route and picked up Shane Prince from Ottawa. You’ve read about him, you know many Senators fans are really upset and are even more upset that he scored in his second game for the Isles. Many Islanders fans are already on board with his acquisition. He is certainly not a rental as he may just be another diamond in the rough who needed a place to play, and that’s a common theme among this Islanders franchise.
So why didn’t the Islanders “Go for it!” at the trade deadline? This brings us to the future and it doesn’t look pretty for the Rangers. It’s not about the first round of the playoffs, it’s about getting to the playoffs, their schedule. For the beginning of March the Rangers are playing teams that are (on average) on pace for 97 points, playoff caliber teams. They’ve already lost to the Penguins once and need to play Pittsburgh two more times. They beat the Washington Capitals and won’t have to see them again this season. That leaves them with the Islanders, Red Wings, Sharks, Ducks, Kings, Panthers, Tampa, Boston to play in the next six weeks before the playoffs even get started. So acquiring Staal may have sent a message that yes, the Rangers are making a Cup run, but they need help just getting home ice advantage. The Penguins have a lighter schedule in that the average point pace of their opponents is 91, not in a playoff contention. Teams like the Flames, Columbus, Carolina, Buffalo, Ottawa are teams that Pittsburgh should win over, but if they want to leap-frog over the Rangers, beating them two more times may just do that.
The Islanders are in the same boat as the Penguins, whose opponents are on an average pace for 92 points. Toronto, Flyers, Carolina, Ottawa and 2 big games against the Caps are in this mix, including a matchup with the Rangers on March 6th and the Penguins very soon. This could be another reason the Islanders don’t have to make a “Go for it!” move because if the Rangers didn’t, they’d gently slip out of second place and possibly down to fourth. Both the Pens and Islanders were thinking longer term while still considering the winning now moment thanks in large part to their schedules. For the Isles, home ice is theirs to lose again. If they can keep up a healthy winning percentage for the remaining of the season, they’ll at finish at least 3rd, but my guess will be they’ll finish second with home ice in the first round. To take this a step further, give the Rangers credit and predict that they somehow make it through the next 5 weeks and they end up in second after beating all of those playoff bound teams. That’s going to be one tired group and I don’t see them getting past the younger Islanders in a 7 game series. If the Islanders play a similar, aggressive style like they did against the Caps last year, I just can’t see the Rangers winning.
The trade deadline saw the Islanders improving the organization while still keeping the youthful prospects in development. What they must do now is learn from last years mistake and seize the opportunity and not let home ice slip away. The Isles may in fact get more than the previous year of 101 points and should get home ice. That, in my humble opinion, will make this a better and I don’t think the Rangers did enough at the deadline to keep pace with their cross-river rivals. Even if the Rangers do end up in second in the division will they be tired entering the playoffs after so many years of longer cup runs? Will the Isles play the Rangers like they did against the Caps and hopefully score a powerplay goal or three without breaking a stick? If this is the case, we could see a changing of the guard that Isles fans have waited over 20 years to witness.