Playoff Success or Bust for Islanders

If someone went up to an Islander fan in September and asked them if they would be happy if by St. Patrick's Day, the team would be sitting at second plance in the Metropolitan Division with 90 points and comfortably in a playoff position, what percentage would have said "yes?"  90 percent?  95?  Heck, would it even get as high as 99.9999 percent (yes, there's always one)?  If wins lead to success and success leads to happiness, then surely we should be grinning ear to ear, unable to hide our joy of the 2014/15 season, right? 

And that doesn't even count the ability to re-sign key pieces like Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk to long-term extensions.  Or the fact that John Tavares is leading the league in scoring and a viable candidate for the Hart Trophy.  How about the sell-out crowds?  The come-back wins?  The maturation of Anders Lee?  Surely after decades of being beaten down, we Islander fans would be happy with whatever playoff run we have knowing that this is only the beginning...the window just opened and we are ready for our run as "Los Angeles Kings-East," right?

Well, not exactly, and if you're looking for orange and blue tinted sunglasses, you should probably keep moving.  

Yes, I know what you're all thinking: he waiting until some adversity to break out the "doom and gloom" narrative.  No, not at all.  In fact, this has little to do with the team's recent losing streak and more of a general warning about the dangers ahead.  In fact, the team played well against a first-place club Saturday night and despite the three-game slide, has shown some strong defensive play and even has a penalty kill that has been competent these past few weeks.  The team will finish strong heading towards the playoffs.

This is the acknowledgment that "success" this season isn't simply defined as "making the playoffs."  It isn't "being relevant again" or "they are fun to watch."  No.  This year the only "success" that matters is "playoff success."  Case closed.  End of discussion.

Now, that doesn't mean the club needs to hoist the Stanley Cup in June in order to consider it a successful season (although that wouldn't be the worst thing in the world).  But, after 22 fruitless seasons, a playoff round victory is reasonable.  Hell, it should be expected at this point by the organization and the fans.  Anything less and the season is no better than 2001/02 when the team lost a hard-fought opening round in 7 to Toronto.  That year the Isles had a blazing start but tailed off as the season wore on.  Sound familiar?

For those saying, "well, this team is young...they need to experience playoff hockey before they can be successful."  You may have a point.  But does the playoff experience from the 2012/13 season against the Penguins for the ten players still on the roster who saw significant action not count?  What about Leddy's two championships or Boychuk's one?  Do Jaroslav Halak's 23 games of post-season experience mean nothing now?  

Speaking of those Penguins, their core guys had a whopping five games of playoff experience (thanks to a first-round ouster in the 2006/07 season) before making a run to the Finals in 2007/08.  

Or how about the Chicago Blackhawks?  Their core group didn't even have the benefit of a quick playoff exit before they advanced all the way to the Conference Finals in 2008/09.  

I probably don't need to tell you that the following year for each team resulted in a Stanley Cup title.  But now we're getting ahead of ourselves.

Back to the Islanders: this is a good team...a very good team.  Whether you're more of an "eye test" guy or a "numbers" guy, this club has been among the best all season.  They have depth up front (even with recent struggles the team is third in the league in goals scored) and defense is solid enough when healthy to be an elite possession team that allows only 28 shots per game (sixth best in the league).  The injuries are beginning to subside (news of Leddy on the road trip was most welcoming).  Halak seems to be playing out of a mid-season funk and Jack Capuano has a new tie all set for the playoffs, so we're good there too. 

We're past the "baby steps" stage with the club.  To general manager Garth Snow's credit, the pieces are here.  Sure, there could always be an upgrade here or there, but the roster has been good enough to beat Pittsburgh three of four, the Rangers three of five, Tampa two of three, and sweep Nashville.  The expectations with this club have been raised.  If people were expecting a learning curve with the club, well, the curve has been greatly accelerated.

It's a good problem to have.  The team should crave these moments.  We fans should embrace it.  They should be expected to win come playoff time.  And at the end of the season, that will be the only true measure of success.  Advance past the first round and send the league notice you're back?  Success.  A first round exit?  Sadly, another failure.

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