You wouldn’t know it, but the New York Islanders and the Toronto Maple Leafs are on the verge of writing a similar chapter to their respective stories as they enter the final stretch of the NHL regular season. Except for the annoying articles about John Tavares leaving the Isles to go play for the Maple Leafs, it’s the younger players from both teams that are making the most news and are generating excitement in both New York and Toronto. To start the season, many did not have the Maple Leafs making the playoffs and the Islanders were at best a bubble team. Now as both teams square off for game 55, it’s the Leafs and Islanders that are on pace for a playoff spot and ready and eager to possibly upset one of the higher seeded teams. Let’s compare shall we?
Both teams have played 54 games. The Leafs are on pace to finish the season with 93 points, while the Islanders are at 91. A win by the Isles and the paces basically flip-flop so both teams are about even this stage in the season.
The Leafs have young players like Mitch Marner, Auston Mathews, and William Nylander having spectacular years while the Islanders Ryan Strome, Anders Lee and Brock Nelson are coming into their own after a coaching change not too long ago. This year the Leafs are led by veterans James van Riemsdyk, Nazim Kadri, and Jake Gardner while the Islanders are led by John Tavares, Josh Bailey and Nick Leddy.
The Islanders are a little older and do have more experience in making the playoffs, including winning a round, where the Leafs are still considered to be in a rebuild and are getting the full experience this year.
The Leafs main rival to make the playoffs are the Boston Bruins, who currently sit at a 90 point pace, but have played four more games. The Isles are in a similar spot as the Philadelphia Flyers are on pace for 89 points, but have played two more games. Both the Leafs and Islanders will face their rivals one more time this season in an attempt to widen the gap and close the door on their respective seasons. Here’s where it gets fun.
Both the Bruins and Flyers have been in the rumor mill for trade talks over the last few months, where as the Leafs may decide to stand pat or at least make a small rental trade, but are not willing to risk their future for a quick fix as it would deviate from the organization’s plan. Meanwhile, the Islanders are on such a good run with the overall depth that making a major trade now before the deadline may in fact be detrimental to the chemistry and good vibes going on in New York.
Both teams are young enough that they have plenty in the tank to make a compelling run at playoff spots no one really saw coming, especially in the Leafs case. If there is one team out if the two that could benefit from a trade, it would be Toronto. To the Leafs fans reading this, if you haven’t heard of the expression started in New Jersey “In Lou We Trust” you may want to keep that in mind. As for the Islanders, you can bet the Flyers still control their own destiny and will try to upgrade their team, possibly the goaltending (hello, Ben Bishop?) and if they can get their hands on a forward as a rental, the Isles will need to maximize those games in hand before the trade deadline.
Valentine’s Day will be the last meeting of the season for these two teams and it is an important game, specifically between the teams. Why? It could very well determine a playoff berth for either, should the Boston Bruins edge the Leafs for third place in the Atlantic Division. A loss of third place by Toronto would mean the Islanders and Leafs could fight for the final wild card playoff spot should Philly falter. Both teams have 24 regular-plus-overtime wins and that could be a determining factor should they both be tied in points at the end of the season.
Two teams that many didn’t give much of a chance this year square off to what may have playoff implications, even in February. That alone should get you excited. Forget about John Tavares going to Toronto, they have Auston Mathews. James van Riemsdyk is not going to be the next left winger for the Islanders, Anders Lee has taken care of that. Their paths are similar from here on out, they know what needs to be done. If their last meeting was any indication of things to come (a 6-5 overtime win by the Isles), then the Leafs and Islanders will be making real news in the headlines and not in the rumor mills. Despite the game being played on Valentine’s Day, I would not expect it to be all rosy and pretty. In fact, like last game, it should be a playoff-like atmosphere with bigger implications and importance and not a no-pressure, nothing-to-lose attitude. They are not playing for a top draft pick, it’s the playoffs. That’s real news.