It’s going to be tough to emerge from the Metropolitan Division. That much is an understatement.
The Washington Capitals currently hold the top spot and, at times, they look like a Stanley Cup favorite. They still have the game’s best pure goal-scorer in Alex Ovechkin, the supporting cast just might be stronger than ever and Braden Holtby could be well on his way to the Vezina… if they handed out awards 30 games into an 82-game season.
It’s not just the Capitals though. The New York Rangers have seemingly had a stranglehold on this division lately, finishing in the top two spots each of the last four years, while also advancing through an average of two playoff series per season in that time. They’re slumping a little at the moment (by their standards), but it’s tough to argue against them over the long haul. And good luck beating Henrik Lundqvist in a Game 7 scenario, should the situation ever arise.
So yes, the top of the Metro is a tough place to get to. And that doesn’t even account for a Pittsburgh Penguins team that has impressive talent, but can’t seem to figure out who it is at this point. Or an upstart New Jersey Devils squad that should probably be losing more games than it is, but keeps winning anyway. And what about the New York Islanders?
Jack Capuano’s group is having a decent season — a nice follow-up to last year’s solid effort. In fact, a look at the bigger picture shows some encouraging progress for the franchise. They snapped a six-year playoff absence in 2012-13 by sneaking in and pushing the Penguins to six games in a competitive first-round series, missed the following year because John Tavares was injured then pushed the Capitals to seven games last April. They’re trending in the right direction.
They’re also still flying a little under the radar. That’s likely a byproduct of their geographical proximity to the Rangers, their general mediocrity since the 1980s and their presence in a division loaded with star power. They’re not really the headliners in any of those scenarios.
They might get to that point soon though. If you have an off night against them, they can embarrass you. And, while Tavares is clearly the foundation that everything else is built on, he doesn’t have to do it all himself anymore.
Take shootout-artist-turned-five-on-five-weapon Frans Nielsen, who’s put up 101 points over the last two years and is currently on pace for a career-high 30 goals this season. Or Brock Nelson, who’s also lined up for personal bests of 27 goals and 47 points. And that doesn’t even take into consideration the production of Kyle Okposo (his 26 points lead the team) or the steady play of both Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss in net. The blue line is looking pretty decent as well.
Overall, the Islanders rank among the top 12 in goals for (2.67, 12th) and goals allowed (2.33, 5th), as well as power play (19.6 percent, 12th) and penalty kill (86.6 percent, 4th) efficiency. Not many teams find themselves in the top tier of all those major categories. Sure, the future is bright — and the present isn’t too bad either.
So what exactly would constitute a “successful” season for the club that now calls Brooklyn home? Given their recent progress, they probably need to at least advance past the opening round of the playoffs.
Could they do more? It’s possible, and they’re obviously not setting their sights on winning just one series. But that’s something the franchise hasn’t actually done since 1993, so let’s not get too far out in front of our skates here just yet.
Problem is, they’ll likely have to go through a legitimate Cup contender just to win an opening round series in the Metro. As it currently stands, the Islanders’ 18-10-5 record puts them in third. For the time being, that means a showdown with the Rangers to start the postseason. Even if they move into second, it’s still the same opponent. And if the Rangers reclaim the top spot, well, that means Tavares and Co. get a rematch with Ovechkin and the surging Capitals in Round 1.
It’s difficult to gauge just how well the Islanders would fare against their rivals from New York and D.C. because they’ve met the Rangers just once this season (a 2-1 shootout victory) and have yet to face the Capitals at all. That will change soon enough though, as they square off with the two of them a combined seven more times, beginning in January.
They went 3-2 against the Rangers last year, though, and actually seemed to have “solved” Lundqvist at times. They also posted a 2-1-1 mark against Washington in the 2014-15 regular season, then got even more familiar with them by going 3-3-1 against them in that seven-game series.
Granted, projecting potential postseason matchups in December can be a risky proposition. We haven’t even reached the halfway point of the 2015-16 campaign yet. But the Islanders will almost certainly have to deal with the Rangers and/or Capitals at some point to get where they ultimately want to go. And that’s not an easy path to navigate.