The New York Islanders have reached a critical juncture of its season. Their recent stretch, notwithstanding an ugly shootout win Tuesday night, has them now in a dogfight for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division. Barry Trotz’ troops are nicked up but are not in serious danger of missing the postseason. But there’s no question, the team must elevate its play with the competition only getting stiffer down the stretch.
Until the end of the season, our Rob Taub every Thursday will give his observations on what has stood out to him. All observations come from the perspective of things that happened in previous games, weeks, or have been a season-long trend.
1. The team is struggling defensively but is it cause for major concern? It’s been a small sample size, but the last eight games for the Islanders have been not ideal. Granted they still lead the league in the least amount goals allowed and team goals-against average. In their own end though, the Isles just look off. Allowing more shots — high danger ones I might add — and having trouble clearing the puck; two things that embattled the team last season, have crept into their game. Opponents might have figured out how to show the Isles’ deficiencies, but there have also been instances lately where they’ve been on the end of some bad luck. For instance, Johnny Boychuk batting the puck down with a high stick that ended up being the game-winning goal for the Capitals in last Friday’s 3-1 defeat.
The Islanders have still been able to get points despite this recent trend, but with the postseason approaching, they just need to get back to what was making successful. There’s no need to alter the gameplan that has worked for months now, but a tweak or two never hurts.
2. Confidence with Thomas Greiss in net. Greiss’ excellent bounce-back campaign could culminate with the Islanders securing its first playoff berth in three years. Depending on how much time his sidekick Robin Lehner could be sidelined — he left Tuesday’s game late after being run into by Senators forward Brady Tkachuk — it’s now on the 33-year-old to take carry the load. Some have pointed out two seasons ago when Greiss showed extreme fatigue when asked to do too much work in the second half of the season. The difference between now and then, The Big German has a team that plays structured defense in front of him plus someone to fall back on in backup goalie Christopher Gibson. And if this season has proved anything, it’s that Greiss’ demeanor doesn’t change no matter the result. When his team has needed a big-time performance all season, Greiss has obliged, even stealing more than a few games. He’s as cool as a cucumber. Something the Islanders need right now and could use in the playoffs.
3. Robin Lehner is fighting the puck right now. Lehner’s definitely a shoo-in for the Bill Masterton Trophy (given to the NHLer who displays perseverance and dedication to the sport), but recently, his game has taken a turn. In Lehner’s last eight starts, he’s allowed 20 goals. While that goal total can be attributed to the team’s recent sloppy play defensively, Lehner is playing more deeper in his crease and has been unsharp cutting down his angles. There have been some leaky goals lately that the 6’4 behemoth wasn’t giving up for nearly three-quarters of the season. It was revealed today that Lehner would be day-to-day after leaving in the third period against Ottawa. Being hurt is never good, but maybe the extra time will allow Lehner to regroup and refocus on getting back to form.
4. Devon Toews continues to show he’s going to be special. Ever since Toews arrived in late December, he’s been everything the fans and organization could have imagined. Tuesday night, he showed once again that this is only the beginning. His goal — a result of a filthy pass from Michael Dal Colle — was a thing of beauty. Getting up on the rush for a 2 on 1, Toews had the wherewithal to catch Dal Colle’s pass with his glove and put it down on his blade to chip it past Sens goalie Craig Anderson. The goal was Toews 13th point in 31 games played. He’s even shown he could be a vital weapon on the power play, But other than offense, the Quinnipiac product has exhibited the confidence of a veteran NHL defenseman. Toews and Scott Mayfield have made for a dynamic duo as the Isles third defensive pairing. Things are looking up for Toews, who looks like he will be a major player for the franchise moving forward.
My lord what a goal pic.twitter.com/SYd4ZwNZ6I
— James Duffy (@TwoTurtleDuffs) March 6, 2019
5. The power play is showing more aggressiveness. Yes, they haven’t scored a power play in their last seven games — they had two in a 5-2 win over Edmonton — but the Islanders are being more creative with the man advantage. Looking back at the past few games, they are looking more to shoot than pass. It’s becoming normalcy now to see Brock Nelson be set up in the right dot for the Ovechkin style one-timer. You can argue that it’s probably the best strategy the coaching staff has come up with as the power play has struggled all year. The one thing Isles fans have been clamoring for is a consistent power play that scores. The latter part still has been hard to come by, but they are showing more initiative in how they’re looking to convert.
6. Michael Dal Colle should probably stay in the lineup until all forwards are healthy. When the coach says “he loves your game” in an ugly performance, that’s a feather in the cap for Dal Colle. The 22-year-old has definitely bided his time and earned his spot on the Isles top line. Even before his recent call-up from Bridgeport, Dal Colle was playing the best hockey of his career. During his second stint with the team back in January-February, the Islanders won 13 of the 17 games he suited up in. Dal Colle only had 3 points in that span, but his game and confidence were pointing upward. It seems that confidence hasn’t wavered. That should be huge down the stretch for the Islanders. Dal Colle’s size, speed, and skill are all things that can help boost the forward corps.
7. The team is not complete when the fourth line is not intact. Trotz has said time and time again, that line is the team’s “identity”. And when that trio — Casey Cizikas, Matt Martin, Cal Clutterbuck — are not on the ice together, the Isles are at a disadvantage. Nothing against Ross Johnston, but the Islanders do seem less physical and have trouble rolling four lines when one of that threesome or two is missing. The Philadelphia game was a perfect example. The Isles went down early and were lacking that aggressive, in your face style that the fourth line brings on every shift. With some crucial, heavy matchups during facing the team the rest of March, the Islanders need the fourth line together in the worse way.
8. Anthony Beauvillier’s season has felt off the mark. The speculation that Beauvillier’s underwhelming season is setting a precedent that he won’t have an impact in the future has gotten louder. Arthur Staple of The Athletic NYC reported last week that Beauvillier was one of the pieces that could go to Ottawa if the Islanders did acquire center Matt Duchene. While that never came to fruition, it shows that the 21-year-old’s struggles have become a focal point. Beauvillier through 65 games this season does have 15 goals — on pace for a second straight 20-goal campaign — but only seven assists for just 22 points.
The golden opportunity that he missed Tuesday night on a 2 on 1 with Mathew Barzal, was just another example of the inconsistency Beauviller has shown all year long. The hope is that with 16 games left he can find a way to turn it on and be a factor in the postseason. But to this point, Beauvillier has been treading water and hasn’t done himself any favors to stay afloat.
9. Long losing streaks – dead and buried. There’s been a number of things that have been impressive about the Islanders season thus far (goaltending, defense, etc.), but keeping the losses to a minimum is probably the best of all. Winning against Ottawa, the Isles kept themselves from losing three in a row from the first time since early November. That’s right. The Islanders lost to Montreal in a shootout and to Tampa and Florida in regulation the week of Novemeber 5th. Incredibly, even with that setback, the team has still not lost three straight games decided in 60 minutes all year long. There were times earlier this decade the organization endured seven, eight, or even ten-game losing streaks. It’s wild to think about those days when the team now only allows the losses to pile up to just two.
— Andy Graziano (@AndyGraz_WFAN) March 6, 2019
10. Trotz hits another milestone. As if turning around the Islanders this season wasn’t enough, Trotz continues to rack up the accomplishments. The latest coming with his team’s shootout victory Tuesday. The win gave Trotz his 800th behind an NHL bench. Only three others have reached that plateau — Ken Hitchcock, Joel Quenneville, Scotty Bowman. That’s some elite company to be associated with. And based on how long Trotz will be behind the Isles bench, those names in front of him might not stand much longer. Congrats coach.
*BONUS: Whoever hacked Josh Ho-Sang’s twitter, shame on you. Shame! Shame! Shame!