Monday, November 22, 2021

Figuring out the Stars, remembering the Bruins, and now it gets real for the Islanders

One thing you may have noticed about the first month of these rankings is that there’s been very little mention of the Islanders. That was intentional, and not just because their fans are notoriously mean to me. It’s because I’m not really sure that the first month of their season counts.

I mean, it counts in the sense that it goes into the books the same as any other stretch of the regular season. But remember, we’re in the long-term business here, trying to separate the eventual Cup contenders from the rest of the league. And I’m not sure how much useful information we can really pull from a team that doesn’t get to play a home game until late-November. Road trips are part of life in the NHL, but 13 games? Bouncing from Florida to Vegas to Montreal to Winnipeg and back to Florida over five weeks, all while every other team is enjoying the occasional home-cooked meal and home-ice crowd? What do we want to do with that?

Not much, I’m guessing, if you’re an Islanders fan. The road trip was not good, producing just five wins in 13 games. That includes a trip-closing four-game losing streak during which the Islanders just looked gassed, outscored 19-4 and looking nothing like the good team they were expected to be.

And they were expected to be good. After years of being penciled in as merely mid-tier contenders by all the smart people and then outperforming expectations, this was the year when it seemed like everyone caught up. Some pundits were picking them to win the Cup. Even Dom’s model finally liked them. And after all that, they end up in dead last in the Metro. Except that it doesn’t count. Not until they get to play some home games in their shiny new rink.

That moment arrived over the weekend, as we finally got our first look at UBS Arena. And the early returns were… well, still not good. The building itself is getting rave reviews, and lord knows that nobody deserves the stability of a decent arena more than long-suffering Islanders fans. But the team didn’t look all that much better in the big debut, dropping a 5-2 loss the Flames. Even the first Islanders’ goal in their new home was a weird one. I’m pretty sure that must be the first rink to ever be christened by a Horn of Doom goal.

Game two was another dud, as the Maple Leafs came to town and shut the Islanders down with their fourth-string goaltender. At least John Tavares didn’t score. Glass half full, and all that.

So where does that leave us? Mostly with a team that I still think is good, but has some serious ground to make up. They’re beat up right now, and managing several COVID-related absences, so they’re nowhere near full power. They’re seven points back of a playoff spot, but that’s misleading because they’ve got multiple games in hand on several teams ahead of them. Factor those in, plus the fact that they’ll be playing almost 60% of their remaining schedule at home, and it’s doable. But they need to start banking some wins, especially with the rest of the Metro looking deeper than we thought.

I say they do it. That’s probably bad news for Islanders fans, since I’ve been wrong about this team for pretty much four years straight.

On to yet another Islanders-less edition of the top and bottom five…

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