Blue Jackets and Islanders spring big surprises
Last week, my SI.com colleague and old pal Brian Cazeneuve -- a hockey fantasy league rival going back maybe 25 years -- threw together a nice piece on the Devils and Red Wings, two perennial NHL success stories that were in danger of missing the playoffs. For the Devils, it's now a certainty as they've been officially eliminated. The Red Wings take the ice on Monday night against Phoenix, three points out of a playoff spot with four games left on their schedule.
There's an opposite side to the plight of those two teams at whose expense two perennial also-rans have risen to contend for a postseason berth: The Islanders and Blue Jackets.
(We must, of course, also mention the Maple Leafs, and Cazzy wrote about them not long ago here.)
You probably know their back-stories: One club was a former dynasty that has only sporadically made any noise over the last three decades, hasn't won a playoff round since 1993, suffered through one seven-year playoff drought and a second that it hopes to terminate this spring at five.
The other club has only one playoff appearance in its 12-season franchise history, and it was swept by Detroit in 2009.
No one expected much out of these squads this year, either, whether it was a full or shortened schedule. Last overall in the NHL last season, Columbus was in upheaval on and off the ice, its fans openly disgruntled at the club for shipping franchise player Rick Nash to the New York Rangers during the summer before importing John Davidson to run its hockey operation in October.
The Islanders' collection of young high-end prospects looked good on paper, as they have for years. But on the ice, most observers figured they'd be more like the Oilers, still lacking the depth to take the next step up.
Entering the final week of the regular season, these are two of the hottest teams in the NHL, hitting their strides at just the right time. The Isles haven't lost a game in regulation during April, getting 18 of a possible 20 points. Going back to Mar. 24, they're 11-2-1 and currently sit in the Eastern Conference's sixth spot. Their magic number is three -- any combination of dropped points by the Jets or points gained by the Isles will do the trick.
The Blue Jackets' April record is nearly as impressive as the Isles': 7-3-0 and if you tack on their last two games in March, they're 9-3-0. They're also 17-5-5 in their last 26 games -- which no one expected from them, including their fans -- and they currently hold down the eighth spot in the West, but it's a tenuous hold. They have a one-point lead on the Wings and three on the Stars, but Detroit and Dallas each have a game in hand and one of the Blue Jackets' two remaining games is against Dallas.
The Jackets may run out of games before they can eliminate the Stars or Wings, and they're going to need some help from those teams' foes. Still, what Columbus has done is rather confounding, and it starts with the heroic play of Sergei Bobrovsky, who was strangely discarded by the goaltending-challenged Flyers last June for draft picks.
"It would be pretty foolish for any of us to act like we'd be in the playoff discussion if it weren't for Sergei," the Jackets' Brandon Dubinsky told Aaron Portzline of The Columbus Dispatch. "We're not one of the three-plus goals per game teams. We're in the twos, so there are a lot of nights where we need him to hold them to one. It's been a pretty special year."
Dubinsky, the former Ranger who came to Ohio in the Nash deal, compared Bobrovsky to Henrik Lundqvist, saying "Bob" is doing the same thing for the Blue Jackets that King Henrik does for the Broadway Blueshirts. "There's no doubt that we are where we are because of him," Dubinsky said.
Portzline believes that Bobrovsky could get serious consideration for the Vezina Trophy, and with stats like a .931 save percentage, 2.03 goals-against average and four shutouts, the NHL GMs -- who vote for the Vezina -- could easily select him.
Augmenting Bobrovsky's fine play is the underrated blueline corps led by Jack Johnson, Fedor Tyutin, James Wisniewski and Nikita Nikitin, and a commitment to team defense, which has seen the Jackets cut almost a full goal per game from their average, compared to the first part of the season.
Beyond their stopping ability, the Blue Jackets have developed a team identity that has been working for them. "We feel like we're underdogs every night, proving people wrong," forward R.J. Umberger told Portzline after the Blue Jackets' 4-3 win in San Jose on Sunday -- no easy feat when you consider that the Sharks are the best home ice team in the NHL. "We're a very confident team. Everyone in here believes. We feel like it's our destiny to make the playoffs."
It's hard to get an identity when the face of the franchise gets traded and some of the other big pieces -- Derick Brassard, Derek Dorsett, and John Moore -- were shipped out at the trade deadline to acquire Marian Gaborik from the Rangers. But there are some proven veteran leaders on this team, such as Umberger, Dubinsky, Vinny Prospal and Jack Johnson who have been through the NHL wars and can keep a team fired up.
One of the Jackets' young leaders, Matt Calvert, is out of the lineup with a broken finger -- he missed his first game Sunday -- but that didn't stop them in San Jose. When a team gets timely scoring and limits the opposition's chances, it helps reinforce that feeling.
The Jackets' power play may limp along (they went 10 games without an extra-man goal until Sunday against the Sharks), but their penalty kill has been a big factor in their rise to respectability. Worst in the NHL last season at 76.6 percent, it's currently ranked 11th at 83 percent, and was even higher a few weeks ago at over 85 percent. At home, the PK ranks sixth in the league with a very impressive 88.1 success rate.
While they are better offensively, the Islanders' collective mindset is not terribly dissimilar from the Blue Jackets', starting with the growing confidence that comes from a group showing the rest of the league that it is for real.
That confidence translates to the complete game the Isles throw at opponents under Jack Capuano, who should be under consideration by the NHL Broadcasters who vote for the Jack Adams Award as Coach of the Year. His Isles don't do anything fancy. They don't beat you with speed, although they do have one of the game's exceptional skaters in Michael Grabner. Rather, they don't get outworked. They doggedly pursue the puck well all over the ice and force turnovers, then get to an effective transition game where they allow their skill to kick in.
No one has gotten more attention on this team for his skill than John Tavares -- and he's going to get serious Hart Trophy props when the votes are tallied. His chemistry with Matt Moulson on the Isles' top line is as good as it gets, but one of Capuano's little secrets has been not fiddling too much with his lines, allowing chemistry to bubble up no matter which unit is out there.
The upshot of that is that the Isles are finally not relying on their top line to carry them, but have gotten good secondary scoring from the line of Frans Nielsen, Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey, three talented guys who were originally teamed up to be a shutdown line but are now regularly finding the net as well. It can be argued that this line -- which was formed late last season but not reunited at first this year due to Bailey's knee injury -- has provided the additional threat that allowed the Isles to raise their team play.
Capuano could have broken up that threesome earlier this season when Okposo and Nielsen both hit dry spells, but he stuck with them. In the last 10 games, they've combined for nine goals and 18 assists.
If you want to argue that the second line has been the key to the Isles' surge, however, you overlook the contributions of this team's unheralded depth forwards, like Keith Aucoin, rugged Matt Martin, and rookie Casey Cizikas, who get in the face of the opposition and don't often come out second best in puck battles.
The Isles have also turned the corner defensively and are among of the league leaders in blocked shots. The linchpin on the blueline has been Lubomir Visnovsky, who, you may recall, didn't seem to want to play for the team after the lockout and was making noises about staying in the KHL. Whatever the truth in that situation, it now looks as if GM Garth Snow's trade for Visnovsky, surrendering a second-rounder in the upcoming draft, was -- like so much of what this team has done -- an under-the-radar coup. Visnovsky's 800-plus games of NHL experience have helped stabilize the blueline corps, largely populated by younger defensemen like the up-and-coming Andy MacDonald, Travis Hamonic, Thomas Hickey and Brian Strait.
And the Isles sixth-ranked power play runs off the big shots from the point by Visnovsky and captain Mark Streit. The fact that both were kept rather than dealt at the deadline helped give this team confidence that management believed in it, yet another ingredient in its rise in the standings.
Finally, the solid goaltending of Evgeni Nabokov has given the Isles some certainty that they are in every game.
It all adds up to the kind of club that not too many teams are going to want to face in a seven-game series.
The Stanley Cup playoffs are always exciting, but they can be a bit more special when teams we're not used to seeing come to the party. The Islanders and Columbus are two that could spice up our springtime.