ALL ROADS LEAD THROUGH THE ATLANTICImproving Against the Division Will Be Key

There is one huge hurdle that the Islanders have to clear to have a successful 2011-12 campaign. The beginning, the end and everything in between during this Islanders season will rest on how they fare against the rest of the Atlantic division (and in the on deck circle is injury, waiting to pounce). By beating the Rangers on Saturday night the Islanders successfully completed the first of 24 divisional games they will play this year.

It’s no secret that the Atlantic is a tough division, if not the toughest in hockey. As the perennial doormat of the division, the Islanders need to make strides against teams they either cannot beat or have had trouble beating. Their records against the Flyers and Penguins are atrocious, even worse on the road. The Devils and Rangers are close rivals that always come ready for a fight. We’ve all heard the recitation of statistics a million times about how long it’s been since the Islanders beat the Flyers. I’ll go into some numbers later but I’ll try not to further the beating of that dead horse.

The point I’m getting at is the sobering reality that despite all the optimism that comes with a new season, all the improvement you can expect out of an entire freaking roster of young and up and coming players, every other team in the Atlantic has improved or at least stood pat. Even if the other teams didn’t significantly improve, there’s still the mental hurdle that comes with failing against a team so much for so long.

As for their opponents, the Rangers added Brad Richards and as we saw Marian Gaborik will wreak havoc on defenses. The Flyers turned over the whole roster — make no mistake they replaced stars with stars — and finally may have a functioning All-Star caliber netminder in Ilya Bryzgalov. Regardless of Sidney Crosby’s health and the fact that they stood pat, the Penguins are still the Penguins and every report out of Pittsburgh is that we’re going to see a whole new, Evgeni Destroyer of Worlds Malkin this year. And the Devils? It’s impossible to say what they’ll be. They certainly won’t be the last place horror show they were under John MacLean and it’s too early to tell if they’ll keep up with the best second half record pace they had at the end of last season. Chances are it’ll be somewhere in between. And that “somewhere in between” is right in the wheelhouse of where the Islanders will be as well.

We know this Islander team isn’t going to sit at the bottom of the conference all season — at least they shouldn’t. But there’s also a ceiling here. They’re likely not winning this division by any stretch of the imagination. John Tavares has improved light years from where he was a year ago. Between Al Montoya and Evgeni Nabokov, the Islanders seem to have found some very solid netminding, now the rub is staying healthy. Having Mark Streit back and cranking at 100% has been enormous thus far. So we’ve seen the worst of them on opening night and, presumably, their best against the Lightning. Now the question is, what is the reality? It’s probably somewhere in between the two — but where exactly is that point?

As much as we want to say this is the year, this is the playoff competitive team that will finally get over the hump after years of waiting it’s hard to think that they’ll be anywhere in the top six of the conference without taking care of business against their division. It’s simply the nature of the schedule and league setup that all five teams in a division will not make the playoffs. As much as this team has seemingly improved from last year, there are two factors that above all will contribute to their success or failure this year. The looming factors are, in my opinion, the injury bug and divisional play.

If I’m Jack Capuano and staff, I’m doing whatever I can to find a way to beat the four teams that we play 30% of our games against. I can sit here and talk goaltending or how much the kids improved this summer all I want. Those will be difference makers this year for sure as we have seen but the beginning and end of the season is going to be how the Islanders handle their divisional opponents. 24 games: nearly a third of the entire season against four teams! There’s a cumulative impact when you have prolonged and consistent troubles like the ones they have had against the Atlantic. This season will depend heavily on if the Islanders can beat the teams they have not been able to beat in recent years.

Past two seasons (not including Saturday’s game):
vs. Devils: 4-6-2 overall (1-4-1 road)
vs. Rangers: 5-7-0 (2-4)
vs. Flyers: 1-10-1 (0-5-1)
vs. Penguins: 3-5-4 (0-5-1)

The first thing to notice about those numbers is that they don’t have a winning record against any of those teams. Let me restate this for emphasis: the Islanders do not have a winning record the last two seasons against anyone in the division. They are a combined 13-26-7 against the division the last two seasons with a 3-18-3 road mark good for 28% and 12.5% win percentages, respectively. Compare that to their numbers against non-divisional opponents the last two seasons and I think you’ll see my point.

The team’s record against non-divisional opponents is 51-50-17 (43%) and 21-26-11 (36%) on the road. There’s nothing scientific about this math and I know it’s basic. But what really sticks out is that the Islanders are an NHL .500 team against non-divisional opponents the past two years! 20-game losing streak included! Being .500 alone will put you in the mix for the playoffs. It won’t get you in, but it’s a lot closer than the Islanders have been these last few years. From the numbers, they’re 15% more likely to win any game, home or away, against non-divisional opponents. So study those gametapes and light a fire under them coach, the Rangers win was a big one but there are still 23 more to go.