It is only fitting that this wonky, lockout-shortened NHL season should come down to the final days with a couple of oddballs actually playing a game with playoff implications.
Both the Toronto Maple Leafs and the New York Islanders are in good shape to make the postseason. The Leafs can make it for the first time in nine years if they win Thursday’s game with the Islanders in regulation time and the Winnipeg Jets lose in any fashion. The Islanders need a few more points to clinch their first trip to the playoffs since 2007, sitting in seventh place in the Eastern Conference with 49 points, three ahead of the New York Rangers and the Jets, although they are only one behind the Ottawa Senators.
Seeing the Islanders in this position is particularly unusual, since their history since the glory days of the early 1980s and four consecutive Stanley Cups has been one of unstable ownership that brought mediocre hockey and a crumbling fan base. Charles Wang brought financial stability when he bought the team in 2000 but his capricious and puzzling decisions after taking a direct role in the Islanders’ hockey operations (huge contracts for Alexei Yashin and Rick DiPietro, for example) ensured the team remained an NHL laughingstock.
This year’s appearance in the playoffs will only be the fourth for the Islanders since 1995 and each time they lost in the first round. Their wacky history is shown in some of the career records for the franchise.
For example, when the Islanders beat the Florida Panthers on Tuesday, it was head coach Jack Capuano’s 82nd win, making him the second winningest bench boss in franchise history. Way out in front, of course, are the 782 wins of Al Arbour, who presided over the only good years the Islanders ever had. Capuano will move into a tie with Terry Simpson for second most games coaching the Islanders at 192 once the puck drops for the Leafs game. That is a modest number even considering the short shelf life of NHL head coaches, which speaks much about the chaos in the Islanders’ front office over the years.
However, there is a different air around this team, one that speaks of a team that could surprise by winning a round or two in the playoffs. Capuano, 46, doesn’t have a ready explanation, though.
“Every team is built differently,” he said after Thursday’s game-day skate. “Our team I built a certain way and we have to play a certain way to be successful.
“At the end of [last season] when we had our meetings, the one common denominator that everybody talked about was playing meaningful games at the end of the season. Our guys have that opportunity. As a coaching staff we’re extremely pleased with the effort they put forth.”
Capuano, though, is being too modest. He melded some strong young offensive talent (John Tavares) with some still serviceable veterans like defencemen Mark Streit and Lubomir Visnovsky and goaltender Evgeni Nabokov to produce a team that is tight defensively but dangerous offensively. In their last nine games, and 11 of their last 12, the Islanders have allowed two or fewer goals. And Tavares, 22, sits third in NHL scoring with 24 goals, pushing himself into the discussion as the league’s most valuable player.
Tavares, who will be playing Thursday in front of the usual mob of friends and family from his hometown of Oakville, Ont., gives most of the credit to Capuano.
“It just seems we have a much better understanding of the way we have to play,” he said. “Everybody, individually and as a team, have found their roles.
“Not only that, but the way we prepare before games and executing those roles and our system and our style of play have come together nicely. We have composure, we have a really good focus, we understand the work ethic that we need.”
The rather simple defensive style the Islanders strive to play both at home and on the road should pay off when it comes to clinching a playoff spot. The Leafs game marks the start of a season-ending five-game road trip, which is not where most teams would like to play their most important games of the season. But the Islanders just happen to own a 12-5-2 road record.
“It’s a tough explanation for me to give you,” Capuano said of the Isles’ record away from Nassau Coliseum. “I don’t know the reason why but we’ll take it. It’s just a matter of making sure we’re focused and committed to playing the same system and playing within the same framework.”