Why New York Islanders' NHL Playoff Journey Is Already a Big Success
But even if the team's season ends this weekend, this playoff journey has already been an immense success for a franchise that took huge strides in its development in 2013.
The No. 1 goal of the present has been and will be to win this series and complete a remarkable upset of the top-seeded Penguins, but even though it's often hard to see the positives after a postseason defeat (if that's the end result), there are plenty of good things for the Islanders to build on going into next year.
One of the most notable improvements that has been made this season on Long Island is the team's depth offensively. Last season, the Islanders were a one-line team with superstar center John Tavares and 30-goal scorer Matt Moulson serving as the only elite forwards for opposing teams to game-plan for. A lack of quality scoring depth made shutting down the Islanders offense an easy challenge for many teams over the last few years.
The emergence of a strong second line that normally includes wingers Josh Bailey, Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen at center has given New York a much stronger top-six forward group than it did in 2011-12. This trio has tallied three goals and five assists through the first five games of the first round, which has played a huge part in the Isles winning two games thus far.
Will the Islanders force a Game 7?
Depth forwards such as Michael Grabner and Casey Cizikas (six points combined in the playoffs) have also developed nicely in 2013 and will play larger roles in the team's offense next season. Matt Martin and Colin MacDonald have also given the team some much-needed truculence, penalty killing and defending on the fourth line, which has made the Islanders tougher to play against compared to last year.
As for Tavares, there aren't many forwards across the league who you would take ahead of him to build an offense around. He led the team with 47 points in 48 games, which included 28 goals scored (third highest in the NHL). His leadership, defensive improvement and consistent scoring were the main reasons why the Islanders reached the playoffs for the first time since the 2006-07 season. These accomplishments helped Tavares earn a Hart Trophy nomination on Friday.
On the blue line, the combination of experienced veterans and talented young players will help the team improve defensively over the next few years. Captain Mark Streit and veteran defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky have played well against the Penguins, and if Streit re-signs, this pairing will continue to provide the team with scoring, poise and leadership on the blue line.
The emergence of 22-year-old blueliner Travis Hamonic has been an encouraging development for the team this season. He has been phenomenal versus Pittsburgh, with strong defense and a level of poise and composure beyond his years. He also doesn't shy away from physical confrontations during or after the game.
Hamonic has also been relied on to play a lot of his shifts against Penguins superstar and Hart Trophy finalist Sidney Crosby. For the most part, he has done a good job shutting down the world's best player, who has just five shots on goal in the last two games. As a good skater with improving offensive skills and shutdown-caliber defensive abilities, Hamonic has the potential to be a top-pairing blueliner for the Islanders very soon.
To improve its depth in the next few years, New York will have several top-tier prospects to bring to the NHL level.
Ryan Strome is one of the top forward prospects in the world after dominating the OHL for several seasons. He's a gifted goal scorer, an exceptional playmaker and has a high hockey IQ. He had seven points in 10 games for the AHL's Bridgeport Sound Tigers in 2012-13 and will make an impact in the NHL next season.
Top defensive prospect Griffin Reinhart, who was the fourth overall pick in the 2012 NHL draft, could also join the Islanders in 2013-14. He would add size, strength and strong defensive skill to an improving blue line.
As its young players at the NHL level continue to develop, and prospects such as Strome and Reinhart make their way to the top level, New York will slowly build a four-line team that has the needed scoring depth and talent on the blue line to compete in the Eastern Conference playoffs moving forward.
Ultimately, getting some much-needed playoff experience will help this team take another step forward next season.
There were 16 Islanders who entered Game 1 of this series with four or fewer games of playoff experience, including Tavares and Moulson. These players have learned quite a bit about the intensity, pressure and atmosphere that the playoffs create.
Sometimes it takes a tough series loss for a team to turn the corner and take the proverbial next step. Realizing what it takes to win in the playoffs, especially against a team like the Penguins, will be a valuable learning experience for this Islanders squad—even if they don't mount a historic comeback.
Playing and winning meaningful games late in the regular season during the playoff race and then having a good amount of success against an opponent that dominated everyone with a 36-12 record will give the Islanders a lot of confidence as the 2013-14 season approaches.
On paper, this series with Pittsburgh was a total mismatch, and many people predicted this matchup wouldn't last more than four or five games.
The Islanders came into this series with the right attitude and the belief that they could beat the Penguins, and to their credit, this team has exposed several of Pittsburgh's flaws with two impressive victories thus far.
It was very important for this franchise to establish a winning culture this year after making just one playoff appearance since the 2004-05 lockout.
The Islanders have proven they belong on the same ice as the most talented team in the Eastern Conference, and they have even outplayed the Penguins several different times. Regardless of the outcome of this series, the Islanders have taken huge strides toward becoming a yearly playoff contender with the success they achieved in 2013.
Will New York make the playoffs in 2013-14?
The team's young players improved, important playoff experience was earned, the coaching was fantastic and many of the top prospects who represent the future of this franchise are ready to make their NHL debuts.
Without any small or major additions made at the trade deadline to strengthen the roster, the Islanders showed a remarkable amount of character by making the playoffs with a group of players that, for the most part, lacked playoff experience.
The Islanders still have a chance to win Game 6 on Saturday and extend their series with the Penguins to a winner-take-all seventh game. But whenever this impressive playoff run ends, New York will be able to close the door on a successful season that proved the franchise is headed in the right direction.
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