Are the Islanders Growing Up?

It was just one win, but sometimes “one” win can mean a heck of a lot more than two points.  Thursday night against the league-best Nashville Predators may just turn into one of those wins for the New York Islanders.

The game was taking on a familiar feeling of recent past: the Islanders raced out to a big lead only to watch the opposition storm back and steal the game from them.  It happened this season against St. Louis, Minnesota, Buffalo (!), and most recently against the Rangers Monday night.  Once Filip Forsberg scored for the Predators to cut the Islanders’ lead to 3-1 with less than 20 seconds left in the first period, many Islander fans feared what the rest of the night would bring.

There was a feeling of “we need the next goal” by both teams, probably moreso for the Islanders and what is likely a somewhat fragile team with big leads.  You can point to coaching…you can point to maturity of the players to close out games and learn that “killer instinct.”  Whatever the exact reason is, it is an area that needs to be cleaned up come playoff time if this team expects to make a deep run.

So with all that said, what happened?  James Neal scored the only goal of the second period and what was once a 3-0 lead was trimmed to a razor-thin 3-2 lead.  And stop me if you’ve seen this before: an ineffective Islander power play on one end, and an opponent’s goal on the other.  It seems to be occurring much more frequently lately and is an absolute back-breaker most times.

If any Islander fan told you after the second period they were confident in the team’s ability to close out the game and get the win, they were lying to you.  You had the best team in the league, carrying a six-game winning streak, going against a team that has been sloppy at best in their own end the past few weeks late in games.  What could go wrong?

It would have been easy for the Islander players to hold their sticks a little tight in the third and play on their heels and try to hang on for at least a point.  However, whether it was an aberration or the start of a trend, something “clicked” with this Islander group and despite some early pressure, Halak and the Islanders wouldn't crack.  Matt Martin eventually chipped a puck out of the zone to a streaking Colin McDonald who found Nick Leddy on a two on one and roofed it passed a sprawling Pekka Rinne to for a two-goal lead.  You could feel the collective weight being lifted off the fans' shoulders and the sigh of relief to restore the multiple goal lead. To be honest, it was probably the first time since late in the first period that the fans were confident the Islanders could win the game.

From that point, it was all Islanders.  Josh Bailey’s goal less than two minutes later would complete the scoring, but not the offensive pressure by the Islanders.  They were relentless on the puck and it never felt like the Predators could get back in the game.  The Islanders put their foot on the Predators’ throats and crushed it.  It was a killer instinct the team hasn’t displayed consistently since the first half.

After Monday's debacle and Tuesday's uninspiring victory, there was a slight feeling of panic beginning manifest with the fans.  It wasn't unwarranted either as even though the team had won five of its past six, they didn't necessarily look great doing it and were fattening up on the softer teams but struggling against the top competition.  Leddy's goal seemed to bring back the fans' confidence as if to say, "you know what, we're a pretty damn good team too."  Bailey’s goal cemented it.

It was the team’s most complete effort since their January 27th victory over the Rangers and it couldn’t have come at a better time.  The team has been faced with questions and doubt all season, and yet every time they face a little adversity and look like they may crack, they respond.  They’ve followed up three separate three-game losing streaks with a five-game winning streak, a four-game winning streak, and a five in six game streak.  When Kyle Okposo was diagnosed with an eye injury at the all-star break that will cost him six to eight weeks and people began questioning whether the Isles would fall apart?  The team has gone 8-5-0 in his absence. 

If the club can clean up its third period woes and develop that ability to bury teams when they are up early, they are going to be a nightmare to play against come April.  Well, even more than they are now to be honest.

Because right now one of the biggest question marks surrounding the team is lack of playoff experience as a group.  Sure, many of them appeared against Pittsburgh for six games in the playoffs two years ago, but that was it.  Johnny Boychuk has a Stanley Cup and Leddy has two, but there aren’t a lot of “playoff-tested” vets on this team.  Learning how to win in April and learning how to close out games is something that goes hand-in-hand and Thursday’s game is one huge step in a favorable direction.

The Islanders as presently constructed are never going to be a dominant defensive team.  But, they have the ability to smother teams with their offensive ability and relentless pursuit.  They’ve made great teams look average and have overwhelmed them with pressure.  It’s their best chance for an extended playoff run.

So while it only counts for two points in the standings, it’s a game that should go a long way in the long run.

Follow me on Twitter @mikepac23 for my Islander thoughts and be sure to follow @TCLIsles for Islander news and analysis.