When the National Hockey League announced their return to play format for the 2020-21 season, the 56 game all-divisional format was certainly an eye opener. Because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the NHL wanted to cut down on travel for teams so they realigned the divisions to keep teams close to each other. In the East Division, the Islanders are playing each of the other seven teams eight times each and in many cases, they are playing teams multiple times in a row, kind of like a baseball type series.
With every game against a divisional opponent and with consecutive games against the same team, there has also been a playoff feel for each game.
“It has because they’re four-point games every time you play. It does have a playoff feel,” said Islanders Head Coach Barry Trotz. “I think the style of game has a playoff feel because of the fact that you’re prepping for a team, you’re probably going a little more in-depth than you would if you’re just a one-off.”
The Islanders opened the season by splitting a pair of games against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden. Following a win over the Bruins in the home opener at Nassau Coliseum, the Islanders split a home and home with the Devils winning on Long Island but then losing in New Jersey. And now the Islanders are in the midst of a two-game set with the Capitals in Washington before moving on to back-to-back games against the Flyers on Saturday and Sunday in Philadelphia.
What’s unique about this format in the regular season is that the Islanders, as well as the other teams, have a chance to examine what happened in one game against a particular team and then be able to plan accordingly to play them again either the next day or two days later. After Tuesday night’s 3-2 loss to the Capitals, the Islanders find themselves with a record of 3-3 and they have a day off to make corrections and changes before the next game on Thursday night at Capital One Arena.
“You have the opportunity to sort of dig into them a little bit,” said Trotz. “We’re going to make some adjustments and they’re going to make some adjustments and that’s what happens in (the) playoffs. (In the) regular season, you’d play a team and move on and you might not see that team for two or three months.”
For The Islanders And The Other 30 Teams, A Regular Season Like Never Before:
The current format was needed to ensure that the NHL could have a season this year with hopes of getting back to normal or whatever the new normal is going to look like in the fall when the 2021-22 season begins. But for now, this all-division schedule is what every team in the league is navigating through. The Islanders are certainly no stranger to what playoff games feel like having gone to the second round of the post-season in 2018-19 and then advancing to the Eastern Conference Final in the bubble last season.
So far, these regular season games have that playoff feel to them.
“Especially right off the bat we’re in low-scoring playoff-type games,” said Islanders defenseman Adam Pelech. “But, at the same time, it’s the new norm and it’s what we’re getting used to. In that sense it feels pretty normal.”
The Islanders are certainly playoff battle tested from their runs the last two seasons, so they are trying to adapt that same mentality to this year’s regular season.
“I think the last two years pretty much every game we played except for a few bad ones here and there but most of the time it’s pretty low scoring pretty defensive back and forth playoff-style games,” said Islanders forward Mat Barzal who scored his third goal of the season in Tuesday night’s loss to the Capitals. “So, I think, whether or not, it’s this season, it’s kind of the same mindset.”
A Unique Schedule For The Islanders Coming Up in February:
It’s one thing to play teams back-to-back on a regular basis in the regular season, but next month things are really going to get interesting. In February, the Islanders will play the Penguins six times over a three-week span and the Sabres four times, two next week at the Nassau Coliseum and then two games later in the month up in Buffalo.
With only the top four teams in the division moving onto this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs, February shapes up as being a critical month in terms of the eight teams in the East jockeying for position.
“That’s going to feel like (the) playoffs,” said Trotz. “It may have severe ramifications on who makes the playoffs and who doesn’t, based on how you do in those games. Every game has a little more pressure than I think the regular season does in a typical year especially in this division where you’ve probably got six quality teams, and maybe even more, fighting for four spots.”
I’m stating the obvious when I say that any type of hockey season is better than the alternative of not having a season at all. As the world continues to navigate through the COVID-19 pandemic, and hopefully with the vaccine we’re headed back towards some sense of normality very soon, the National Hockey League found a way to get the teams on the ice this season and work towards crowing a Stanley Cup Champion for a second consecutive challenging season.
As much as everyone will look at the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Stanley Cup title won in the bubble this past fall with a sense of history and uniqueness, the same will have to be said, not just for this year’s champion but how every team is able to adapt to a regular season schedule that feels like the post-season. If the Islanders are able to punch their ticket to the playoffs, they will not only have the postseason experience of the last two seasons, but they will also have played 56 regular season contests this season to get them ready.