With the All-Star break approaching next week, it’s been a successful season so far for the New York Islanders. Just past the midpoint of the season, the Isles are playing their best hockey in over three seasons and are right in the thick of the chase for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. A lot of things have been very noticeable under the new regime of g.m. Lou Lamoriello and head coach Barry Trotz, as well as just the overall direction the franchise is heading. Each week through the end of this season, our Rob Taub will key in on what has stood all year long from recent games, weeks, or season long trends.
- The Islanders have won games this year in every way you could imagine. What was an outlier in the first few months of the season last year — where they just won by outscoring their opponents — the Isles have found ways to claim victory in a multitude of facets. Start with opening night in Carolina and shift all the way to this past Tuesday night versus St.Louis; Name it, they’ve done it. From being able to fight back from deficits, getting ridiculous performances from both Thomas Greiss and Robin Lehner, blowing teams out, winning tight checking games, and even bludgeon their opponents in shots; Barry Trotz’s crew has become well-versed in obtaining victory. Oh, the other way they’ve done that’s been spotlighted since October: Structured, defensive hockey.
2. Those season-turning losing streaks are a thing of the past. It’s remarkable that since the season began, the Islanders have yet to lose more than three games in a row in regulation. Go back the past few years, and you’ll find that four-or-five game losing stretch that cost the club dearly in the standings. Not this season. The Isles, under Trotz’s tutelage, have been able to limit the losing streaks to two or less games. In fact, the team has lost just two games in a row in regulation just FOUR times all year. Their other two game slides, they’ve been able to salvage at least a point. Trotz’s ability to get this team to respond after a couple rough outings, has been a joy to watch. It also goes to show that in games that the Isles lost but deserved the win, that the dynamic of not coming away with the two points doesn’t linger and break the team’s confidence to rebound.
3. The road has been much kinder the first half of this year. A 14-8-1 record away from Brooklyn/Long Island is more than many could have asked for, considering the Islanders were a poor 16-19-6 on the road last season. The Isles have been far more impressive as the visitors this year, coming away with big wins — Toronto, Philly, Pittsburgh, Colorado, St. Louis, etc. But what also has also caught my eye, is their ability not to get rattled as they’ve shown in the past. Take the Detroit and Arizona games for example (down 2-0 and come back to win 3-2, down 1-0 and come back to win 3-1). On the road, the club also have looked more prepared to start games and put the dagger in their opponents, a total 180 from the last two years where giving up last-minute goals and letting their opponents steal the extra point in overtime and the shootout were common ground. The coaching staff deserves a ton of credit for that.
4. Dougie Blowouts no more. If you examine the Isles 15 regulation losses, you’ll be confronted that there has been only a minimal amount of games where they were blown out. Pittsburgh, Dallas at home, and Thanksgiving Eve at MSG really are the only games you can count off one hand where the team was out of the game quickly. Other than those three performances, Trotz’s bunch have let games rarely get away from them or accepted defeat in a more competitive manner. Not letting the blowouts become a trend — they were several times the past few years — the Islanders have shown they’re a more confident group.
5. The penalty kill has vastly improved. They might rank 20th as we speak, but it’s clear how different the Islanders have looked when tasked with being shorthanded. The last four games tell that story — 9-for-9 and the success of killing two 5-on-3 attempts in both Ranger games. But look back at the entire landscape, watch the PK and you’ll see three things: 1. Tighter in front of the net, 2. More aggressive on the puck carrier, 3. Sticks everywhere in the shooting and passing lanes. Compared to how awful they were shorthanded all of last season, it’s been fantastic to also see Valtteri Filppula and Leo Komarov excel in the roles that Lamoriello envisioned for them when he signed them in free agency. Same goes for Scott Mayfield, who has transformed into an exceptional presence and steady defender.
6. Dad Strength Indeed. When I asked Arthur Staple in his Athletic Q&A yesterday about why Brock Nelson is having a wonderful campaign, his response: Dad Strength. Hard not to argue with that when you look not only at Nelson, but the other two new fathers on the squad, Casey Cizikas and Johnny Boychuk. They as well have performed well above anyone’s expectation. Cizikas — whose son Jack was born in March of last year — has already topped his career-high in goals and is on pace for the best season of his career. Boychuk, who just welcomed a third (a boy) to the family, has been a revelation this season on the blue line. But Nelson has probably benefited the most from all the adrenaline of being a new dad. He’s playing the most consistent and taking on more responsibility than anytime in his six seasons as a pro.
Maybe some more babies along the way, could mean bigger breakout seasons for the rest of the club.
7. Mathew Barzal continues to show he’s a big-game performer. Just watch what Barzal did in overtime on Tuesday night — ragging the puck until he caught the Blues on a change that led to Filppula’s game-winner — and it’s easy to see that the reigning Calder-winner lives for those moments. But through the 45 games the Isles have played, Barzal has come through in the clutch frequently. Barzal’s hat trick against former teammate John Tavares and the Leafs was a sight to behold. His dominance of the Rangers (three points in last Thursday’s win); the three points Barzal registered were the backbone of the come from behind win against Ottawa; his OT winner in New Jersey the day after Thanksgiving halted the Islanders from losing their third straight game. Barzal will appear in his first All-Star Game next week, but if his performances so far were just a preview of what’s to come in the second half, the Isles could well find themselves in the postseason.
MATHEW BARZAL THE KINGSLAYER pic.twitter.com/unmRKHFZqZ
— James Duff Colle (@TwoTurtleDuffs) January 11, 2019
8. Devon Toews is going to be special. It’s only been a small sample size, but there is definitively something really good about Toews. 11 games, four points, and some very key plays are what the 24-year old has done since being called up. But in all those contests, the Quinnipiac product looks like the transition from the AHL to NHL style game has not fazed him. Toews has developed a nice chemistry with (Scott) Mayfield, which could be a quality pairing down the stretch in possibly into the postseason. And his speed? Tremendous. The Isles have been lucky the past few seasons to have (Mat) Barzal and Nick Leddy and their slick ability to carry the puck from end to end, but Toews looks like he could be one to take that skill to another level. Toews has not even reached the tip of the iceberg yet.
9. The offensive balance has been an underlying story line. Look down the Isles list of forwards, you won’t find anyone with more than 20 goals and 50 points. But that doesn’t matter. The balance the Islanders have been able to generate from their four lines this year has given them a dynamic they’ve been severely lacking since the last year they reached the postseason (2015-16). Last year it was the top two lines, sometimes one. Now, (Barry) Trotz on a nightly basis is able to roll his four units and create a competitive edge. Trotz has gotten timely contributions from each line, and it seems there are few times where each group doesn’t have at least one player leading the charge. Nothing needs to be said about the fourth line other than, they are the identity of the club.
10. Barry Trotz has restored the pride in this franchise. Islanders fans love Trotz. Everything he says, it has a purpose and continues to resonate well with the natives. Press rewind and look at the days of Jack Capuano and Doug Weight, they never uttered words that the fans could believe in like Trotz does. Trotz says he’s an Islander. So he’s not only representing the team as the head coach, he’s the flag-bearer a franchise that had its fire and determination missing for way too long. There might not be a Stanley Cup banner hanging from the rafters on opening night next season, but Trotz is building something special here. Something that’s going to bring glory once again.