Islanders Face Daunting Week Ahead at Coliseum

With less than three weeks left in the regular season, the Islanders have positioned themselves nicely for a top-three finish in the Metropolitan Division.  Their 92 points (44-25-4) is currently good for second, two point ahead of Pittsburgh and four points clear of Washington and a wild card spot.  Yes, it will be disappointing not to win the division after being atop it for so long, but the goal right now should be a top three-finish, and just as important, home-ice in the first round of the playoffs.

Of course, if the Islanders are going to maintain home-ice in the first round, they are going to need to earn it this week. Beginning tonight at the Coliseum, the Islanders will host the Minnesota Wild, the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday, the Anaheim Ducks on Saturday afternoon, and they cap off the week with a Sunday tilt against the Detroit Red Wings.  If you're looking for another test the Islanders will face this season, this week will be a difficult one.

It will also be a chance for the Islanders to silence some of the detractors who have been waiting all season for this team to fail and be able to scream "same ol' Islanders."  In the eyes of many, the Islanders are "pretenders" to win a championship and their recent play has only emboldened this camp moreso.  A strong showing at home this week could knock some of the nay-sayers off their pedastal.

Being home for these matchups should be an advantage for the club...that's if you ignore the team has lost its last four home games, being outscored 12-6 in those games.  In fact they are only 7-8-0 since the All Star break on home ice, bringing its overall record at home on the season to 23-12-0 (hmm...maybe they shouldn't be too focused on getting home ice?)  

Regardless of whether these next four were being played, the Islanders are going to need to raise their level of play if they are hoping for a successful week.  Saturday's game against the Devils was a nice way to end a four-game skid, but it won't matter a heck of a lot if they can't follow-up on it this week.  The team has played uninspired hockey for about the last month and if teams are supposed to be hitting their peak at playoff time, these Islanders haven't gotten the memo.

But, things are not lost yet.  This team has proved itself capable this season of winning tough games against the league's best.  While no doubt fans are looking at this next week as a daunting task, it's just as likely the Wild, Kings, Ducks, and Wings are looking at the Islanders  with the same feeling.  

Make no mistake though: if the Islanders don't elevate their game, then this week will not just look daunting, it will be crushing.  The Islanders have only three wins against playoff teams since the All Star break, going 3-8-1 versus playoff team (at the time they played them) over that stretch.  Yes, they have dealt with various injuries to Kyle Okposo, Nick Leddy, Mikhail Grabovski and Jaroslav Halak which can't be overstated.  But the record goes beyond who's been in the lineup...it's been the general play of the team that makes many of them appear content just be here as opposed to hungry for more.  

So while the eight points on the table this week are huge for playoff seeding, the games are even more important to the psych of the team that needs to regain some of its confidence and restore themselves as a legitimate contender in the East.  It's not reasonable to expect them to win all four games (although no one would complain if they did), but coming out of this week with five out of a possible eight points is very fair, considering the Wild will be on the second of back to backs, the Kings will be finishing up a three in four night metro trip, the Ducks will be in the midst of an Eastern Conference swing, and the Wings will have played an important division game against Tampa Bay the day before coming to Long Island.  While the opponents are difficult, the circumstances surrounding each are not horrible.

The best news coming out of Saturay night was the play of Halak who was terrific in net while recording his fifth shutout of the season.  Halak will get the start tonight against the Wild who will counter with Devan Dubnyk.  Dubnyk is making his 33rd consecutive start for the Wild who are in a Western Conference wild card spot.

Tonight's game against the Wild is also a chance for the Islanders to exact a little revenge on the Wild.  The last time these teams met in back in December the Islanders blew a three-goal lead and ultimately lost 5-4.  Of course in typical Islander heartbreaking fashion, Thomas Vanek scored the tying goal and Nino Niderreiter scored the winning goal late in the game.  In fact if you're betting on which Wild player will score the biggest goal tonight, one of those two guys is probably your best bet.  Hopefully there won't be a repeat of that performance tonight.

Thursday's game against the Kings is a monster one for the defending champs as they find themselves on the outside looking in at the playoffs.  For them, they just need to get into the playoffs in order to be dangerous.  The Islanders can throw a serious wrench in those plans with a win Thursday night.

The weekend games will give the Islanders a chance to sweep the mini-season series against the Ducks as they look to secure the President's Trophy.  Sunday's game against the Red Wings will be the rubber match between the two this year.

Four tough games...four chances to get back to playing the way that was so successful for the Islanders earlier in the season.  By the end of the week we'll know better whether these Islanders are contenders...or pretenders.

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