The 82nd and final game of the regular season turned into a joke. The Islanders decided to pull Thomas Greiss after the first period in a tie game so they could intentionally lose to the Flyers. When coach Jack Capuano inserted fourth string backup Christopher Gibson, his intentions were made clear. Do whatever it takes to lose so they avoid the Penguins in the first round.
Indeed, the game was rendered meaningless due to an awful new playoff format which basically gave the Islanders the option. Win and finish third in the Metro Division and draw the red hot Pens or lose and start the first round at Atlantic Division winner Florida. They chose the latter. Who could blame them? They were handled by the Pens easily 5-0 on Apr. 2. They proved they could handle the Panthers, rallying for three goals in the final seven and a half minutes in a 3-2 home win on Mar. 14.
By splitting the playoffs into divisional format for the first two rounds, the NHL created this mess. If they didn’t reseed and went with a more traditional 1-8 format, the Islanders final home game against the Flyers would’ve mattered. They would’ve been locked into a 4/5 first round match-up against the Rangers. A win in any fashion would’ve vaulted them over the Rangers and given them home ice for the first Battle Of New York since ’94. Instead, it won’t happen. We’re left wondering why.
The new format includes two wildcards for the final pair of spots with the top three in each division locked in. The top seeded Caps will draw second wildcard Philadelphia, who at least from that sense is a common opponent from the old Patrick Division before they foolishly went to six divisions. Another silly idea created under the leadership of commissioner Gary Bettman. However, it’s not him who should be blamed but rather the faulty process by the competition committee.
It hasn’t been around that long and fans are already tired of it. Why reward a team who has fewer points? The Islanders chose their opponent. Once the Flyers scored twice to even the contest, the decision was made to insert Gibson for Greiss. While I get the notion of doing it for safety precaution, they basically tanked the final two periods to ensure a match-up against the Panthers.
In no surprise, the Isles’ top three scorers John Tavares, Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen all sat out as did Johnny Boychuk, Nick Leddy, Brian Strait and Casey Cizikas. Capuano did reinsert Cal Clutterbuck and Matt Martin with the latter one of the two goalscorers. Nikolay Kulemin also tallied in the all too predictable 5-2 loss to the Flyers.
Speaking of which, they had nothing to play for either. Coach Dave Hakstol scratched Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds, Sean Couturier and Mark Streit. With Steve Mason an iron man down the stretch getting them in, he rested him and played Michal Neuvirth, who returned from injury after missing the past three weeks. He turned aside 15 of 17 shots for his 18th win.
After the Isles played a good first period, they were outscored three-zip. After registering seven shots on Neuvirth, they totaled 10 the rest of the way. Eric Boulton, Ross Johnston, Bracken Kearns, Scott Mayfield, Adam Pelech and Alan Quine all played. They did their best. But with the Flyers also inserting Scott Laughton, R.J. Umberger and Jordan Weal, it had the feel of a preseason game.
If that’s what the league wants, then they’re even bigger fools than first thought. To many observers, the Islanders did the logical thing. Rested their stars and played for the potential better match-up. Even with injuries to goalies Marc-Andre Fleury (concussion) and Chad Murray, the Pens look more formidable. They played lights out down the stretch winning 15 of their final 17 led by captain Sidney Crosby, who finished third in scoring. Once Carl Hagelin was put with Phil Kessel and Nick Bonino, they gelled. With Kris Letang playing the best hockey of his career and the Pens playing better than anyone entering the tournament, it’s understandable why the Isles did what they did.
I’m not a big believer in playing or rooting for a certain opponent. The Panthers didn’t win the Atlantic by accident. Led by ageless wonder Jaromir Jagr, underrated Jussi Jokinen and Roberto Luongo, they have plenty of speed, skill and goaltending. Featuring Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Vincent Trocheck and Reilly Smith along with stud defenseman Aaron Ekblad, they’re not pushovers.
Florida lacks the experience that Pittsburgh has. However, they have enough guys in that locker room who have been through the playoff wars and know what it takes. As for the Islanders, they have been here before. Led by Tavares and Okposo, they have yet to advance past the first round since ’93. Eventually, it has to happen.
While the Isles concern themselves with the Panthers, the Rangers will once again meet a familiar opponent. The Pens, who even with questions in net and still no indication when Evgeni Malkin will return, are favorites this time. It isn’t the last two years when the Rangers were the better team and prevailed. They are without Ryan McDonagh and possibly Dan Girardi even though I’d prefer Dylan McIlrath over a less than 100 percent Girardi, who has struggled throughout.
The early indication is that Eric Staal should be ready for the start of his first postseason since ’09. He left Saturday’s game with a “upper body” injury. We’ll have to wait and see. If he can’t go, Oscar Lindberg plays on the third line with Kevin Hayes and Jesper Fast. He better.
We’ll delve more into this match-up in another post. At least now, we know who plays who. All due to the Islanders determining who they wanted. What do they say again about karma?