Here’s a New York-New Jersey hockey question that hasn’t been asked in years: Could either the Islanders or Devils — each of which missed last year — reach the postseason in 2017-18 alongside the Broadway Blueshirts, who made it yet again?
There was a time in early December when the three clubs were bunched closer than rush-hour riders on the Seventh Avenue subway. Each was ensconced in what would be a playoff position had the season ended then and there.
But that was then and this is now. Yet the question remains relevant for the triumvirate: Are they playoff for real? To answer this, we first must take a quick look at the recent past.
On Dec. 9, the Rangers whipped New Jersey, 5-2, at Madison Square Garden while the Islanders lost, 3-1, at Boston. At the time, Alain Vigneault’s sextet appeared to be heading to the Metropolitan Division’s summit, while their local rivals seemed more on a treadmill to playoff oblivion.
But since then, New Jersey has rapidly recovered. What’s more, the Devils have stunned critics to the core by remaining among the elite teams in the East.
Meanwhile, the defense-porous but high-scoring Islanders stayed right behind the Devs until late December, when Doug Weight’s skaters began what some feared was a freefall to the NHL’s subterranean depths.
A pre-Christmas Brooklyn home victory over Winnipeg, featuring rookie Mathew Barzal’s first NHL hat trick, at least temporarily stopped the bleeding. The Brooklynites returned after Santa’s visit with a come-from-behind 3-2 overtime win over Buffalo on Dec. 27.
But then the bleeding resumed with an Isles loss in Winnipeg followed by a 6-1 New Year’s Eve trouncing in Colorado.
A day later, the Rangers welcomed 2018 against Buffalo at Citi Field, defeating the Sabres, 3-2, in overtime before a Winter Classic capacity crowd despite sub-freezing temperatures.
Ergo: At the start of 2018, the hockey horizon for the three Met Area teams looked a lot different than it had four weeks earlier.
Most certain of all was the playoff race’s uncertainty. Exhibit A was the Rangers. Early in the season, their playoff chances seemed so dubious that rumors spread across Manhattan of Vigneault’s imminent firing.
This, of course, was a result of media panic inspired by a losing streak. Eventually the Blueshirts got back on track, and calls for A.V. being fired now sound more like the most ancient of ancient history.
Speaking of coaches, the longer New Jersey stayed in the NHL stratosphere, the more strident the calls that low-key John Hynes should be considered for the Adams Award as mentor of the moment and season as well.
A pre-Christmas shootout win over the Blueshirts — ex-Ranger Brian Boyle got a pair of goals for New Jersey. including the clincher in the skills competition — merely proved that Hynes’ sextet is a reasonable facsimile of a winner.
So, where does that leave us now in terms of forecasting playoff contenders?