The Islanders will be back on the ice Thursday night against the Sharks, carrying a sense of urgency with them.
“We’ve dug ourselves a hole,” coach Barry Trotz said on a Zoom call Wednesday. “And our playoffs are sort of now.”
The Isles are carrying a two-pronged storyline into this three-games-in-four-nights stretch. First, the good: They are actually able to take the ice, and have already gotten five players back from COVID-19 protocol. Josh Bailey, Anders Lee, Adam Pelech, Andy Greene and Ross Johnston all practiced on Wednesday. Trotz said four of the five would likely play on Thursday (Johnston has usually been the extra skater when healthy this year).
That is about as good as good news can be.on the back of an eight-game losing skid that has seen the Islanders tumble in the standings, they finally have their captain back. They are finally starting to get healthy. The team that takes the ice on Wednesday might finally resemble the New York Islanders.
“It felt great to be out there,” Lee said. “Spent some time away from the team, obviously during a tough stretch. It’s not easy to be at home, a little bit helpless in many ways.”
The Isles will still be without Casey Cizikas, Zdeno Chara and Kieffer Bellows (COVID-19) as well as Brock Nelson and Ryan Pulock (lower body). But they are starting to see the beginning of the end of this hell.
Which means that now comes the harder part.
The Islanders have just 12 points after 17 games, a deficit that no team has rebounded from to make the playoffs since 2003, when the Isles themselves did it with 11 points at the same mark, per the Elias Sports Bureau. That is much the product of circumstance — a 13-game road trip then four home games with half the roster comprised of AHL call-ups is not a winning formula. But to make the playoffs, the Isles will need to play the rest of the season at a torrid pace.
This weekend’s stretch includes three winnable games: Thursday against the Sharks, Saturday at Detroit, Sunday against the Blackhawks. And the Islanders cannot afford to extend their losing streak much longer.
“There’s a lot of confidence in our group about who we are and who we should be on the ice,” Lee said. “I think it’s evident we haven’t been the same to where we want to be. So we’re gonna take it day by day, game by game.”
Trotz compared the team’s current predicament to catching a moving train. Wednesday was their first day of practice since Saturday — when the team was shut down for COVID protocols, they weren’t even allowed to access the building.
“You’ve gotta sort of piece it together,” Trotz said. “So the first step is, let’s get our game at least trending the right way.”
Trotz managed to find some positives in the last four games the Islanders played. But the time for moral victories is long gone. The Islanders came into the season expecting to compete for a Stanley Cup. Now they need to climb out of a hole just to have a chance to do that.
“I think if you have any backbone, you’re gonna dig in,” Trotz said. “And this group has backbone, so I expect them to dig in. And [you] find out a lot about people when the heat’s on. When the pressure’s on.”
Which is to say, we’re about to find out a lot about the Islanders.
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