By Brady Campbell, Staff Writer
As the National Hockey League (NHL) enters the final month and a half of the regular season, the New York teams are locked into tight playoff races in the Eastern Conference.
This is especially true for the New York Islanders, who are currently one of six teams fighting for two wild-card spots. After a tough stretch losing 10 of 11 games in January, they have now won three of their last five games, including two over the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team competing with the Islanders for a wild card spot.
Broadcasting alumni Joe Lonegro believes that the Islanders can make a run into the playoffs despite inconsistent play from the team.
“If you asked me last week fresh off of a three-game losing streak to three much weaker teams when it comes to standings, it seemed like the team was collapsing and was not going to have what it takes,” Lonegro said. “Now, after beating Pittsburgh twice in four days with the amount of injuries they have, including their best player [Matt Barzal], and having guys like Lee, Horvat and Martin step up in key moments, you can’t help but think that they definitely could make the playoffs.”
With the Islanders in a difficult spot, some expect them to be a team to watch at the trade deadline this Friday at 3 p.m. They already traded forwards Anthony Beauvillier and Aatu Raty, along with a conditional first-round pick in the 2023 NHL Draft for Bo Horvat, who scored 31 goals this season for the Vancouver Canucks and is already off to a hot start with the Islanders.
Despite locking up Horvat for eight years, Lonegro thinks the Isles could make a few more moves.
“With the amount of injuries, and of course, you hope some come back, you need a depth center that you can rely on just in case. I thought they’d move on from Scott Mayfield and Semyon Varlamov to get draft picks, but now that they’re right back in the hunt, I don’t see it happening,” he said.
New York stayed busy during deadline week when they made a trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday, getting Pierre Engvall for a third-round pick in the 2024 draft.
“I think it’s a great bottom six depth move for an injury-depleted team making a push for the playoffs,” Lonegro said. “He can play left or right wing, is fast and good in transition, so I think he will compliment the Islanders well.”
The Rangers are in a different situation, having won seven in a row with points in 10 straight games before three ugly losses. They are currently sitting just six points behind the New Jersey Devils for second in the Metropolitan Division and eight points ahead of the Islanders.
Graduate speech pathology major Ryan Branigan has no doubts the Rangers can make the playoffs.
“They’re playing great but need the Devils to start losing more often to pass them. The Rangers are seemingly going all in at the trade deadline, trading Sammy Blais back to the Blues along with Hunter Skinner and two draft picks in the next two drafts for Vladimir Tarasenko and Niko Mikkola,” he said. “They brought back Tyler Motte from the Ottawa Senators, who was a good depth player for their playoff run last season, while also sending young forward Vitali Kravtsov to the Canucks for a prospect and draft pick.”
The Rangers made a big splash Tuesday when they traded for Chicago Blackhawks superstar Patrick Kane. New York gave Chicago conditional second and fourth-round picks in this year’s draft for Kane.
Branigan loved the move.
“I’m ecstatic to see Kane on Broadway. Not giving up any high-level prospects or our other 2023 second-round pick was great. The only thing left to do is win the cup,” he said.
Once the Rangers make the playoffs, the big question surrounding them is if they can compete with the Boston Bruins, who are on pace for the most points in NHL history, or even a team like the surging Carolina Hurricanes.
Branigan thinks the Rangers can be competitive, but will have to return to form and play consistently to have a realistic chance to beat those teams.
“I think it’s possible. I definitely think they have what it takes to compete with the best in the East, so long as Igor Shesterkin returns to being a top goaltender in the league,” he said.
Ryan Boettcher, a broadcasting alumni, agrees that the Rangers can make a competitive run.
“As an Islander fan, I’m jealous because they have been winning consistently without even the best play from their goaltender. The last few weeks, Shesterkin has been iffy at best, but they are still winning most of their games,” he said. “I don’t think they will catch Carolina, but in the playoffs, they have a chance with a good combination of a good goaltender and high-powered offense.”
Regarding his Islanders’ chances against the top teams in the league if they made the playoffs, Boettcher understands the uncertainty the Stanley Cup Playoffs bring.
“A few years ago, the Tampa Bay Lightning had one of the best seasons ever and got swept in the first round by the Columbus Blue Jackets, so anything can happen,” he said. “When you look at the Islanders, they need to pray that Ilya Sorokin is Ilya Sorokin, and if he has one bad game, they are in trouble, but you never know.”
Lonegro believes the Bruins are a dominant force that will be hard to stop at any point.
“The Islanders have a better chance of beating the Hurricanes than the Bruins. Neither are easy, but Boston has outmatched basically everyone this season, including the Isles,” he said.
Lonegro remains confident in the Islanders chances this postseason.
“If they can get past the first round, the sky’s the limit. They’re good in the playoffs when they play structured hockey, and sometimes it has gone away, and they have looked vulnerable,” Lonegro said. “The last few wins they have had proves it is still there, so if they can be structured, they can beat anyone.”
The two local teams may be in two different situations, but it doesn’t change the fact that this final stretch run of the season is crucial. For the Islanders, they have to keep winning while also needing a lot of help against teams above them in the standings. The Rangers look to be in a good spot, but recent struggles highlight needed improvements to compete in the playoffs.
It has been a wild NHL season thus far, and it should be a fun ending as an unprecedented amount of teams are battling to get into the dance.
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