The last installment in this discussion of benchmarks might strike the reader as a bit odd. But “playoffs” is the goal this year. There can be no talk of “Stanley Cup” unless that minimum threshold is achieved. So, what is the benchmark?
If someone had told The Peerless at this time last year that the Islanders would finish eighth in the Eastern Conference and make the playoffs, he would have called next of kin to suggest commitment proceedings. A team with a owner who was absolutely bats, a GM who was not-long removed from active status as a player and had no direct experience in the duties he was assuming, a coach who hadn’t been behind an NHL bench in any capacity in ten years, and a team with a little bit of talent, but largely imported from far and wide – eight of the 20 players who dressed on opening night played with other NHL teams the previous year. Most prognosticators had the Islanders a mortal lock to be a lottery team. The Peerless picked them to finish 30th in the league.
The Islanders limped along well into the season, stuck at .500 as late as January 16 (21-21-4). But they closed with a rush, going 19-9-8 in their last 36 games. That has the suggestion of a club that was finally integrating the parts it brought in to start the season. But there is another set of factors at play.
If you look at the Islanders’ statistics, the team leaders don’t (for the most part) show up among the league leaders in the more attractive categories:
Points: 45th – Jason Blake (69)
Goals: 10th – Jason Blake (40)
Assists: T73rd – Tom Poti (38)
+/-: T34th – Radek Martinek (+19)
PPG: T19th – Jason Blake (14)
PPA: 21st -- Tom Poti (26)
It was in the little things, the gritty things that teams without top end talent have to do that the Islanders did well:
3rd – Sean Hill (252)
5th – Trent Hunter (246)
8th – Brendan Witt (231)
5th – Brendan Witt (207)
6th – Sean Hill (202)
14th – Tom Poti (170)
10th – Jason Blake (69)
T13th – Viktor Kozlov (65)
17th – Trent Hunter (64)
And, the Islanders earned points in more than their share of one-goal games – 14-7-12, earning 40 of their 92 standings points via that route (including 8-2-8 in that late season rush).
If one adds in the solid goaltending of Rick DiPietro (32-19-9, 2.58, .919), it was a recipe for the Islanders to confound those who, when the season started, saw them as a team destined for the lottery.
Capitals: 22 points
That is what the Caps will need above last year’s 70-point total to meet the expected playoff threshold. It’s hardly impossible –
Here are the team statistics in which the Islanders finished higher than the Caps:
5-on-5 goals scored-to-goals allowed ratio
Power play conversion
Penalty killing conversion
Winning percentage when scoring first
Winning percentage when leading after one period
Winning percentage when leading after two periods
Winning percentage when out-shooting the opposition
Winning percentage when out-shot by the opposition
Face-off winning percentage
And, as if to drive the point home, the Islanders won the season series against the Caps, 3-0-1, outscoring the Caps, 16-6.
Why was that so? The Islanders didn’t have any more talent than did the Caps; they certainly didn’t have the top-end scoring talent. Even Jason Blake, who had 40 goals, still can’t really be thought of yet as an elite goal scorer (he bested his previous career high by 12 goals). The Islanders out-worked teams and were a very difficult team to play against.
The Caps have upgraded their offensive talent, and that should enable the club to take some pressure off of what was a young and too-often overmatched defense last year. The defense should improve, if only as a product of experience. The addition of Tom Poti will provide some added offensive punch from the blue line. But as the other looks at benchmarks suggested, there is work to be done.
But there is another question – do the Caps have a team personality? The Islanders had it in spades last year, and the Caps did not, at least not a consistent one. Much has and will be made of the offensive production that might come from the top two lines. But the Caps once were known as much for a hard-working, difficult-to-play-against style of their own. The “Plumbers Line” from the 1980’s, the lunch-pail ethic of the Konowalchuk-Halpern-Dahlen line of the early part of the decade, not to mention the individual – and ornery – efforts of Rod Langway, Scott Stevens, and Dale Hunter over the years contributed to that profile. The Caps have found additional talent this summer, and that was important. But will they find a personality? That might be every bit as important to their playoff chances this year.