Are the Islanders a Championship Caliber Team?

The Islanders had just finished dismantling the Rangers, 3-0, on Tuesday night in their latest impressive victory in a season that has been filled with them. John Tavares has been a big part of their success this season as mentioned in my first article, The Awakening of John TavaresTavares sat at his locker in the visiting room at Madison Square Garden, probably in his tenth minute of postgame questions and platitudes, when he heard it.

“Do you look at this as a measuring stick? Maybe not a statement win but in terms of getting people to believe in what this team has been doing all year?”

Tavares remained as stoic as ever while being asked if the Islanders measured themselves to a team they haven’t trailed in the standings since the second day of the season before summarizing why that was a silly question without actually saying that.

“We’ve had that question asked quite a bit throughout the season. That trip we had out in L.A.(beating the Kings and Ducks on back-to-back nights), the home-and-home victories against Pittsburgh earlier in the year. Every game is a new challenge and we expect to win. We expect to beat everyone we play against.”

The question is understandable from one perspective—after all, these are the Islanders, the only thing more perpetually frustrating and disappointing on Long Island than rush-hour traffic on the Long Island Expressway. Fans are likely split into two groups: the ones that say, “Respect us already because we are really good,” and the ones that tremble with fear and think, “We will probably find a way to screw this up.”

So excuse me for either stating the obvious or contributing to your anxiety about a collapse, but Tuesday night is just the latest reason why you shouldn’t expect the Islanders to go anywhere during the second half of the season.

The only question about all of Garth Snow’s moves this summer—Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolay Kulemin, Nick Leddy, Johnny Boychuk, Jaroslav Halak—was how so many new faces would mesh with so many young ones that haven’t experienced much NHL success. But the arrival of those veterans along with the almost simultaneous emergence of Anders Lee, Brock Nelson and Ryan Strome have transformed the Islanders into a five-on-five juggernaut.

The question about the Islanders shouldn’t be, “Are they for real?” but, “Can they win a Stanley Cup?”

History shows most Stanley Cup champions need that deep run that falls short before getting over the final hurdle, and the Islanders simply haven’t been tested in that way yet. That doesn’t exclude them from being legitimate contenders, but it’s something to keep in mind when the postseason begins. Experience matters.

What matters more is goaltending, and the Islanders finally have it in Jaroslav Halak. All the shot-attempt talk above won’t matter if Halak, who has had his share of injuries in the past, isn’t healthy when the playoffs begin. Having a goaltender who can regularly make saves can make a positive difference or negative difference if the goaltender is shaky in the face of poor or solid possession number.

As it stands now, however, the Islanders are for real. The realest team in the East, perhaps. Maybe some people won’t believe that until they clinch a playoff spot or even win a series. But everything about them through 45 games says they are legitimate contenders.

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