The New York Islanders should be playing desperate hockey right now as they head into the home stretch of the season and fight for the final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference. But over the last several games, the Isles look tired both mentally and physically.
Without blatantly saying it, interim coach Doug Weight admitted that trying to climb out of the early hole the Isles dug for themselves with their slow start this season may have taken its toll on the team.
“We had to be at the top of our level for the last 4-6 weeks, it’s like every game is a playoff game,” Weight said after Monday’s disappointing 3-1 loss to the Nashville Predators. “It’s tough. We’ve got to find a way to dig deeper and try to put games together. We were too late to the party on a consistent basis.”
The evidence shows that the isles seem to have run out of gas after becoming rejuvenated when Weight replaced Jack Capuano at mid-season. The Isles were at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings when the change was made and went on a 7-1-2 run in Weight’s first 10 games behind the bench.
That run got them back into the playoff hunt, but it also seems to have emptied the gas tank. The Islanders are now 6-7-2 in their last 15 contests and are 0-3-1 in their lost four home games. Recent home losses to teams that are behind the Isles in the standings like the Winnipeg Jets and Carolina Hurricanes have cost the club valuable points in the standings. The team’s play has been inconsistent and ragged at times.
“If you start thinking that you’re tired in your head, you’re not going to play to the standard that you want,” said captain John Tavares. “We’ve given ourselves a good chance to make the playoffs and put ourselves in a spot where we can fight till the end, but I think we’re just disappointed that we didn’t play well enough today, starting with myself. It’s just not good enough.”
Even when they find ways to win, the Isles are not playing consistently good hockey. Still, just when you think it’s time to write the team off, they find ways to win even when they’re not playing great hockey. Despite their recent uneven play, the Isles have found ways to hang around in the playoff race.
“At this point you’re just looking to get wins no matter how ugly they are,” veteran forward Josh Bailey explained. “Every team is tired at this time of year. I don’t know any team that’s fresh. Everybody’s playing through some kind of injury and is tired. That’s just the nature of this time of year as you head into the playoffs.”
Making the playoffs won’t be easy for this Islanders team. They have seven games left on their schedule but five of them are away from home where the team has won just 15 of 36 games. They are also currently behind both Boston and Tampa Bay in the fight for the final wild card berth in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Still, Weight seems determined to overcome the challenge and the fatigue and find a way to scratch their way into the playoffs. “We’ve played a lot of hockey and we’ve been emotionally invested for six weeks now trying to get into this thing. That’s not an excuse but it’s tough to do and we’ve got to find a way to do it. It’s exhausting but it’s exciting, too.”
The Islanders are still in the playoff hunt, but they need to find their second wind and stop playing like a tired team and start playing like a club that is desperate to make the playoffs. If they don’t get hot very soon, they will find themselves facing a long and uncertain offseason this summer.