Nothing is more fun than being a fan of an overachieving team not expected to do much. A team that is fun to watch, surprises the national media, and sticks around much longer than just about anyone expected. A team that has some surprise stories of players not expected to contribute as much as they have contributed. A team that has been a downtrodden franchise whose glory years were a long time ago. But, I am not talking about the New York Jets. I am talking, of course, about the New York Islanders.
The Jets are another example of this and having two overachieving teams in the same town during the same year do not happen often. The story of the Jets is well-heralded, reaching the AFC conference title game when just about everyone expected them not to qualify for the playoffs. The Islanders started 2010 almost as hot as the Jets, starting the calendar year 6-1, and they are right in the thick of a playoff race that involves just about everyone. Sound familiar?
Between Weeks 12 and 17 of the NFL season, the Jets were tied in the standings with at least three other teams. Their low point was after Week 11, when the Jets were 4-6 and tied for 11th place in the 16-team AFC with Tennessee. If you divide the games evenly across the NHL season, the Islanders would be at the same spot in their schedule after 53 games. In the Islanders’ 53rd game, they were crushed by the Washington Capitals, 7-2, to fall to 23-22-8. The 54 points were good for 12th place in the East out of 15 teams, but only one point behind sixth-place Philadelphia and the seventh-place New York Rangers.
After the Jets season, those that wear the uniform and the most positive fans said they saw this coming and they knew all along they would shock the world. I am sure the Islanders and the most positive Islanders fans feel the Islanders will shock the world and make the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They have a long way to go, but no longer than the Jets. Two more teams make the playoffs in the NHL than in the NFL. The Islanders will have two built-in bye weeks in February, as only one player, Mark Streit, will be participating in the Olympics. Streit’s Swiss team is not expected to medal, so he will still probably have a week off. The Islanders will have time to practice and time to re-focus on the last six weeks of the season.
The playoffs were not necessarily in the plans for the Islanders this season. They are building from within and a prized rookie, John Tavares, and the young nucleus, including Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey, are learning on the job. This leads to surprising victories and demoralizing losses and the Islanders have had their share of both this season. These types of teams are reliant on how quickly they learn from their mistakes. The Islanders have proved resilient, but still have issues with back-to-back games and taking care of business against teams they should beat. But, according to most pundits, the Islanders were supposed to be at the bottom of the standings with no teams they “should” beat.
No matter what they do this season, it is clear the Islanders, like the Jets, are building something. Besides their roster, their coach and general manager are on the same page. Their owner, Charles Wang, is still committed to keep the team on Long Island. (What is going on with that, anyway?) Their roster almost fits Coach Scott Gordon’s system. There is still some players that do not and most of them were holdovers from Ted Nolan’s time as head coach. The future looks brighter than it did two years ago. It looks brighter than any time since 2002-03, the season after a narrow playoff loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round. In that 2002 playoff appearance, there was a lot of hope for Islander fans that their first appearance in the playoffs in eight years would be the start of a return to prosperity for the franchise.
That hope waned in 2003 and 2004, losing in the first round and, after the lockout, the Islanders have been inconsistent and slow to adapt to the new NHL. Consistently, the Islanders were among the teams shorthanded most often. But, over the last couple of years, the Islanders have gotten younger. They have instituted a system they can believe in and, after a lot of growing pains last year and some more this year, they will be in good position to have success in the new NHL.
New York is not a likely landing spot for overachieving teams. The hype in this city makes it impossible to sneak up on anyone. But, the Jets and Islanders are decidedly second-fiddle teams in a crowded New York market. The money available to teams to spend in this town is unparalleled. But, football and hockey have a playing field that is more even than ever with a salary cap. Just look at the Super Bowl this year, where small markets like Indianapolis and New Orleans are the top teams in the league. Edmonton was in the Stanley Cup Finals just four years ago. New York does not have the advantage it used to have, but over the years, not to many underdogs have called New York home.
The Jets moved from 11th place after Week 12 to ninth the next week, seventh the following week, and into playoff position after Week 14. In fact, there was enough time for the Jets to lose, fall out of playoff position, and still finish fifth when the season came to a close. There is still plenty of time for the underachieving Islanders. Plenty of time to sneak up on everyone and plenty to come out of nowhere to qualify for the playoffs and make some noise once they get there. When you are building something, the sky really is the limit until the rest of the world catches up with you.