UNIONDALE, N.Y. – The two teams on the ice were two of the bigger surprises of the 2013 NHL season. Last Saturday night inside Nassau Coliseum the New York Islanders hosted the Columbus Blue Jackets. One team came within a whisker of snatching the final playoff spot in their conference. The other came within an overtime goal of forcing a Game 7 against the No. 1 seed in the first round.
After years of early summers and high draft picks, the Islanders squeezed their way into the Eastern Conference’s top eight and put a scare into the Pittsburgh Penguins.
They got there. Made a little noise. Now comes the question if can they do it again; this time over an 82-game schedule with new divisional and playoff formats.
Down the stretch last season, the Islanders blazed their way into the postseason. That success is something that head coach Jack Capuano has to try and replicate and build on. In the 14 games before their 4-3 shootout loss to the Carolina Hurricanes on April 23 that earned them the magical playoff point, the Islanders went 11-1-2. When they needed big performances, their key players stepped up. John Tavares scored 10 goals and 14 points, while Evgeni Nabokov posted a .931 save percentage and 1.74 goals against average.
Before the 3-0 win over the Florida Panthers that started all that, the Islanders hadn't won more than two games in a row at any point. A couple of wins here, a couple of losses there. That's something Capuano wants to change.
“I thought consistency last year was a little bit of an issue with our club because there’s a certain way collectively how we have to play," he said. "Every team is built differently, built a certain way. There’s a framework how we have to play. I don’t think for whatever reason we hit our stride at the beginning of the year.
“Consistency’s the big thing and making sure that we understand one or two seconds can cost you a hockey game.”
In their opening game of this season, the Islanders went back-and-forth with the New Jersey Devils and won in a shootout. The next night, in their home opener, an early power play in the third period opened the door for a Columbus Blue Jackets comeback from being down 2-0. The Islanders had to settle for a point after losing in a shootout.
Up one night. Down another. That's going to happen to every NHL team, but limiting those down nights and maintaing a level of play that will earn points is vital in making the playoffs year in and year out. This Islanders team is still learning that.
While trying to find consistency, the Islanders are facing expectations for the first time in some time. In taking that next step in their development as a team -- with new captain John Tavares being named a Hart Trophy finalist and his linemate Matt Moulson having scored 112 goals over the past four season, plus their supporting cast contributing more and more -- making the playoffs on an annual basis has become a realistic possibility again.
Tavares, however, knows there's still work that needs to be done.
“I think the mindset has to be you can’t just expect it to happen again," said Tavares. "Just because we got there, we earned it and worked for it, doesn’t mean we’re just going to be given it again. A lot of people know what we can do and where we’re headed and that’s going to give us a little more attention. I don’t think teams are going to take us lightly, not that they did, but now they know how dangerous we can be."
The Penguins found that out last postseason. The Islanders dominated them for stretches and it was obvious their speed was something that Pittsburgh couldn't handle.
It was a learning experience. One that should be beneficial for them this season. It won't be any easier having to maintain a level of success over 82 games, but the opportunity is there for the Islanders.
"We have to be ready. It’s going to be a long season," said Tavares.
"We played well for a good six, eight weeks last year and now we’re in for eight, nine months. That’s going to be a challenge and we all have to have that mindset.”
Folow Sean Leahy on Twitter at @Sean_Leahy