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Capellini: Islanders About To Enter The Make-Or-Break Zone

By Jeff Capellini

The rejuvenated Islanders have scratched and clawed their way up the Eastern Conference standings. If they keep this up, they could end up playing in mid-April, something that seemed illogical not all that long ago.

The idea of the words "Islanders" and "playoffs" being used positively in the same sentence was straight-up folly prior to the calendar turning to 2017. The Isles occupied the conference basement at 11-14-6 after losing 6-2 to Ottawa on Dec. 18, and had given every indication that they were on the road to nowhere.

Fans and media members were calling for a bunch of heads. Bandwagons were abandoned. General manager Garth Snow was looking like the poster boy for how not to build a contender. Some even got on John Tavares, the team's best player and clear-cut leader, because even he wasn't immune to substandard play.

Yet, things have changed dramatically.

The Isles have gone 14-5-4 since, a run that has been pulled off in the face of a head coaching change, and off-ice chaos due to various reports suggesting the team may not have anywhere to play in the not-too-distant future.

Islanders Nelson Berube
Islanders forward Brock Nelson, left, and goalie Jean-Francois Berube celebrate their 5-1 victory over the Colorado Avalanche at Barclays Center on Feb. 12, 2017. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Interim coach Doug Weight deserves a lot of credit for the righting of this once-sinking ship. He has kept the focus on the ice, infusing serious belief into his players. They have responded by going 8-2-2 under his watch to move within one point of the eighth spot in the conference.

And wouldn't you know it? The Isles (25-19-10) play the eighth-place Maple Leafs in Toronto on Tuesday night. The matchup will mark the fourth game in a stretch of 10 in 17 days for New York. The Islanders are 2-1 so far, including a dominant 5-1 win over visiting Colorado on Sunday night.

While most teams would likely prefer to not have to deal with such a condensed schedule, it might actually work in the Isles' favor. Why? Well, they had their mandated bye week earlier in the season and now have an opportunity to take advantage of the games in hand they have over several of the other playoff contenders in the conference.

With 60 points, the Isles are also one point back of Philadelphia, which sits in ninth due to tiebreakers, but the Flyers have played two more games and begin a three-game western Canada road trip on Wednesday. Once they return on Feb. 20 they will play just three more games before the end of the month. The Maple Leafs have played the same number of games as the Isles and find themselves in a dogfight with Boston and Ottawa for second place in the Atlantic Division. Needless to say, one bad week can leave a team on the outside looking in at Lord Stanley's spring tournament.

The same holds true for the Islanders, who play in the Metropolitan Division, which has been by far the best division in the NHL. Barring an even better run of their own and some of their rivals falling apart, it appears, at least right now, that the best the Isles can do is eighth. They entered play Tuesday 15 points behind the first wild card spot-holding Rangers, who they will face Thursday night at Barclays Center.

The Isles will then play a home-and-home set with the playoff-hopeful Devils, who also have four games in the next six days.

Weight and his players still need to prove they can win consistently on the road, a place where they have just seven victories this season and will play 19 of their remaining 28 games. Starting with Saturday's tilt in Newark, the Isles play 10 of 11 outside Brooklyn, including games against Montreal, Columbus and Chicago, three of the best teams in the league, before taking part in their own western Canada excursion, with stops in Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver, before wrapping up the trip in St. Louis on March 11.

Needless to say, that brutal stretch, all those thousands of travel miles, will ultimately tell the tale of the Islanders' quest for their fourth playoff appearance in the last five seasons.

While their overall team defense has been largely hit or miss of late, the Islanders finally have both aspects of their special teams going in the right direction. New York's power play, long the bane of the team's existence during the first several months of the season, has converted 30.3 percent of the time (10-for-33) over the last 11 games to move up to 24th in the league (16.5 percent). The Isles' penalty kill entered the week 14th overall, but has been successful on 31 of its last 35 attempts (89 percent), spanning the last 17 games.

Throw in the usual solid goaltending from Thomas Greiss, a timely performance here and there from backup Jean-Francois Berube and a 5-on-5 offense that has slowly gotten its act in gear and the Islanders appear ready for one interesting mad dash toward the postseason.

MORESchwartz: Toronto Media Has Been Relentless When It Comes To Tavares

Of course, what Snow does in the days leading up to the March 1 trade deadline could also go a long way toward determining the Isles' fate. At the moment, Tavares, Josh Bailey and Anders Lee are playing as well as any top line in the NHL, combining for 22 goals and 27 assists over the last 15 games, dating to Jan. 13.

Secondary scoring from Brock Nelson and Ryan Strome has also been prevalent, albeit more recently, with each young forward contributing eight points over the last nine games.

Snow should remain under considerable pressure to add to the existing group. Acquiring a solid top six forward is a must in my opinion, given the fact that the Isles, despite their helter-skelter ways in their own end, appear to have the depth defensively to withstand a significant injury. If you need proof, just look at the results they have procured since Travis Hamonic departed the lineup on Jan. 7.

The Isles believe in their young defensemen. Adam Pelech has been solid in a regular role, Scott Mayfield has performed well when called upon, and the team is taking a cautious approach to reinserting budding young star Ryan Pulock into the mix.

Since recovering from a lower-body injury that sidelined him in late October, Pulock has been playing his way back into top shape at AHL Bridgeport, where he has 10 goals and 22 points in 27 total games this season. It stands to reason he'll be back with the Islanders at some point and when that happens this team will have another very dangerous weapon to use on the power play.

There's no way around it, folks. We're going to learn a lot about the Islanders over the next month or so. Can they keep up this offensive surge? Will their defense go into lockdown mode sooner rather than later? Will there be new faces added to the formula? Will they conquer their demons on the road?

The answers will be many and telling.

Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @JCapWFAN

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