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Mike BarryEye on the Island

By Mike Barry
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Islanders Begin Long-Shot Bid For Playoffs

Preparing for the return of the 2013-14 New York Islanders without their top scorer, John Tavares, is much like contemplating the fate of the 2014 New York Mets without their best pitcher, Matt Harvey.

Tavares’ season ended when he was injured while playing for Canada in the Winter Olympics. Harvey is unable to pitch this year because of off-season elbow surgery.

The Islanders will need to win at least 16 of their remaining 22 games to qualify for the National Hockey League’s (NHL) playoffs this spring, an unlikely turn of events.

They can begin their ascent out of the Metropolitan Division’s cellar over their next three games. All of them are at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, starting with a Thursday, Feb. 27, contest against the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Islanders will then play at home against the New Jersey Devils (Saturday, March 1) and the Florida Panthers (Sunday, March 2) before a make-or-break four-game road trip through Canada.

Complicating matters further for the Islanders are the roster moves general manager Garth Snow will be making prior to the NHL’s Wednesday, March 5, trade deadline. Thomas Vanek, a talented forward who is a free agent at season’s end, has made it clear he wants to test the market in the off-season, leaving the Islanders little choice but to shop him around to other NHL teams and see what players and/or draft picks they can get in return. Since arriving on the Island a few months ago from Buffalo Sabres in exchange for another soon-to-be free agent, Matt Moulson, Vanek has played very well while on the same line as the Islanders’ two top scorers, Tavares (third in the NHL in total points, a figure which includes goals and assists) and Kyle Okposo, who ranks eighth in the NHL in that same category. Beyond those three forwards, the Islanders have had trouble generating any consistent offense.

The defense has been even more of a problem, despite generally fine play by goalie Evgeni Nabokov. Injuries sidelined two of the squad’s top defensemen, Lubomir Visnovsky and Travis Hamonic, for long stretches this season, a situation which has often left Nabokov to fend for himself in the net as defenders further down the team’s depth chart have struggled.

The Islanders made the playoffs after the NHL’s lock-out shortened 2012-13 campaign with a record of 24 wins, 17 losses, and seven ties. It was the Isles’ first visit to the post-season since 2007, and the conventional wisdom held that an Islander return to the NHL’s annual chase for the Stanley Cup in 2014 was likely. Yet the Isles endured a 10-game losing streak in late 2013 before entering the NHL’s Olympic break with 22 wins, 30 losses, and eight ties.

To shake things up, the Islanders traded Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Peter Regin this month to the Chicago Blackhawks for Chicago’s fourth-round pick in the 2014 NHL draft. The Isles’ front office is hoping there are a number of good players remaining at that point because they also secured the Philadelphia Flyers’ fourth-round 2014 draft selection last year for Mark Streit, a defenseman and the team’s former captain. It should be noted that the Islanders also gave a first-round 2014 NHL draft pick to the Buffalo Sabres as part of the Vanek-for-Moulson deal.

By mid-March, it’ll be clear whether the Islanders are surging into playoff contention, or winding down a lost regular season, which concludes on Sunday, April 15. Fans could then turn their attention to 2014-15, the Islanders’ final season in Nassau before the team’s move to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center.

Mike Barry, a corporate communications consultant, has worked in government and journalism. Email: MFBARRY@optonline.net