The final 21 days of the 2016-2017 season is upon us and what a way to close it out. Three teams in the East, competing for 1 spot. The Lightning, Islanders and Maple Leafs. At this pace, cancel the Leafs and add the Bruins to the talk. No, the Leafs are not out of the race, they're just getting started. After the Leafs defeated the Bruins 4-2 on Monday, the Leafs closed the gap to just 1 point behind Boston with a game in hand. Meaning for the third consecutive season, the Bruins have fallen out of the Atlantic top 3 late in the season.
The Islanders enter play on Wednesday, sitting three points shy of the Maple Leafs for 8th in the East, the last playoff spot, and it comes against their long time rival, the Rangers. Thomas Greiss, the Isles goalie, was phenomenal since the coaching change 2 months ago, but he has come back down to Earth over the past few weeks. Greiss is 24-16 this season with a GAA just above .250, not too shabby for a career backup, now earning his wings as a starter. Goaltending has been the Isles issue all season, after waiving Jaroslav Halak, JF Berube has been brutal and the Isles cannot afford to start him over the remaining 11 games.
Halak, handling the situation like a professional, is on a tear in BPT. Halak has 2.19 GAA and is leading the Isles farm team, the Sound Tigers to a playoff berth. The 31 year old was an All-Star with the Isles back in 2014-2015 and hasn't been the same since. But in all do respect, it may be time for the "Halak Era 2.0" The next three games come as followed: Rangers-Penguins-Bruins all in a span of 4 days. Penguins on Friday and Bruins on Saturday, will ultimately decide the season. You have to think Berube can NOT play either game so Halak needs to be recalled ASAP.
The young guns in Toronto may help the Isles, actually. If the Bruins lose to the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday, the Islanders will be 4 points behind Boston with 2 games in hand and a date with the B's on Saturday, meaning Toronto can pass Boston and the Isles can shift their focus to Boston. All two meetings between the Isles and B's went down in the TD Garden in Boston, both victories for the Isles, so the Isles have the upper hand on Saturday when the B's come to Brooklyn.
Wednesday: The Isles head to MSG on Wednesday to plat the Rangers, who are without Henrik Lundqvist. In three meetings thus far, the Isles are 2-1 versus the Rangers, their only loss at MSG all the way back on October 13th. The Rangers plat Tuesday night so Antti Raanta will play, so if the Isles get lucky, Magnus Hellberg will play Wednesday night. Thomas Greiss is 1-0 versus the Rangers this season while Halak is 1-1. The Isles need to take advantage of an injury batted team and make a push for April hockey.
Friday: The Isles travel to Pittsburgh on Thursday to play the defending Cup champions on Friday. In their latest trip to Pittsburgh, the Isles fell by a late goal after Shane Prince tied the score. Halak was simply sensational all game until the final 90 seconds, so Halak should play Friday, god willing they call him up.
Saturday: As mentioned earlier, the B's come into town and it should be Greiss v. Rask in what could be the biggest game at Barclays Center this season. Greiss pitched a shutout on MLK day in January silencing the Bruins on a 4-0 win, the last win in the Jack Capuano era.
There is no question, these are biggest games this season and a test for the Isles that they need to pass. It all starts Wednesday at MSG.