Live by the sword, die by the sword.
The famous saying derived from Gospel of Mathew is used when describing sport and it perfectly describes the 2018-19 New York Islanders.
That sword you might ask, is defense.
It’s the concept that changed this team from the outset. It was the reason they went from giving up a league’s worst 296 goals this season prior to the league’s least 196 this season. It’s why they earned their most points since 1983-84, a second place finish in Metropolitan Division, home ice and a second round appearance in the postseason. It was also what led to their demise and a wildly successful season coming to crashing halt.
The Islanders season is over after last night’s 5-2 loss at the hands of the Carolina Hurricanes, aka those “Bunch of Jerks”. As tough an ending it may be, there were a number of things that contributed to the team’s defeat.
Before this series got underway, all the talk surrounded the Isles having a ten-day layoff after they swept out the heavily-favored Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round. What many should come to terms with is — while it probably did derail the team’s momentum they were riding — that’s not the reason they’re no longer playing. No, there are several other factors that play into why Isles fell.
You can list all the excuses. Switching from an intimidating barn in the Nassau Coliseum — who former Islander and current Hurricanes defenseman Calvin de Haan admitted played a part in the outcome — to a grey, bland Barclays Center, questionable officiating and two crucial goals waved off, all the posts and crossbars that were rung in the first two games, the offense only scoring two even-strength goals all series long and breaks not going their way. Truth is though, the desperation wasn’t there for the Islanders.
All that desperation and resiliency they played with all season and against the Penguins, it was clear in all four games where the team failed in both departments.
Game one: 31 shots at even strength, but only six shots in the third compared to Carolina’s 10, not to mention going 0-for on four power play chances. Instead of continuing to push the pace, the Isles let the Canes hang around and got burned.
Game two: Probably their best game of the series, yet only 27 shots thrown at the duo of Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney. Then after the stunning 48 seconds that caused them to go down 2-1, they had trouble generating traction to force overtime.
Game three: After Justin Williams gave Carolina the lead midway through the third, the Islanders went into a shell, only producing two shots in the last 14 minutes of regulation. Credit the Canes with sucking the life out of the Isles, but at such a crucial juncture, the team’s compete level sunk.
Game four: Once the Isles took the lead early in the first, they never built on it. That could be contributed to Leo Komarov’s penalty, but still. And as soon as they were down again, they couldn’t find their composure and let the game slip away.
Simply put, the Islanders didn’t do enough. They were beaten by a team that not only shoved their own game back in their face, but a team that just wanted it more.
Dissecting the four contests as a whole, the Isles just seemed a step behind in every facet.
The offense — which had its struggles all year — really had difficulty generating lots of shots, causing them to go ice-cold, and the result being just two-even strength goals; they made it too easy on Carolina’s goaltenders. Another thing, seveval of the Isles forwards and defensmen — aside from Devon Toews — had trouble tracking the puck and making better decisions; Carolina, top to bottom, won more of the 50-50 puck battles and the territorial battle. The fourth line, spotlighted so much for how they can alter a game with one shift, was rendered ineffective; the Hurricanes fourth line made an impact when they stepped on the ice. And even though Robin Lehner was brilliant, Mrazek and McElhinney were slightly better and came up with timely save one after another.
What also was unquestionably noticeable was the physicality. As the series shifted to Raleigh, the Hurricanes imposed their will and hit everything sporting a white Isles sweater.
Not everything was negative though from an Islanders standpoint though.
Toews really came of age in this series, looking like a stud at both ends of the ice and not being fazed by the moment; The power play, so abysmal all season, was effective and came up big when the team really needed it. And we cannot forget about Mathew Barzal. The 21-year old had a strong performance throughout the series and was the ultimate competitor despite the known outcome of losing.
So there you have it. Not getting enough, after receiving it so many times from different sources throughout this year, is why the magic for the Isles ran out.
This series will be fresh in the minds of the players and the fans until training camp begins again in September. But, it’s a learning experience, one the players of this group might value heavily down the road.
Mat Barzal enjoyed his first taste of the NHL Playoffs.
— MSG Networks (@MSGNetworks) May 4, 2019
Now, while it’s easy to stew about what could have been with the Eastern Conference wide open, reflecting back on the ways the Islanders transformed this season needs to be said.
From one-man unit to a Family.
After John Tavares left, the Isles had no choice but to pick themselves up off the floor and play as a team. They did just that in droves. From game one to game 90, the 20 men in that room worked as one to become the team everyone came to hate playing against. They rolled four lines, had each others backs, and won and lost as a group. There was never any singling out of one player, and that resonated highly with everyone affiliated with the organization.
Defense and goaltending take leaps and bounds.
Someday someone will look back and maybe say that what the Islanders accomplished this year on defense and in goal was the greatest turnaround in NHL history. It’d be hard to argue it though. Going from being the most maligned defensive corps to one of the strongest in the league, cutting the goals against by an unbelievable 100, was never a thought before the season began. We saw the rise of Ryan Pulock as quite possibly the next elite d-man for years to come; the rebound nature of veterans Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy; monster development of Scott Mayfield and Adam Pelech, and the biggest hidden gem in Devon Toews. Those six should be truly proud of what they were able to do and how their career trajectory changed for the better.
Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss. What else is there left to say? These guys were the backbone and the heartbeat of the team this year. Both were exceptional from the first game until the last, and, they each deserve tons of credit for overcoming major adversity to have a share of the William Jennings Trophy. Lehner, hopefully he is re-signed, became an amazing story. From revealing past issues with mental health and alcoholism, to the greatest year of his career — 25 wins, a Vezina Trophy nomination and Masterton Trophy nod. Hollywood couldn’t have written a better script.
The fourth line reigns again.
This trio brought the heart and soul back into this organization. Casey Cizikas, Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck, were such a vital part of why the Isles had an identity once again. All three saw their careers revived and proved why they are so god damn good together. Cizikas scoring 20 goals really was the cherry on top of what turned out to be an exceptional campaign not just for him, but his two line mates.
We take the lead! Zeeker!
— IslesBlog (@IslesBlog) December 2, 2018
Mathew Barzal took his lumps and kept on pushing.
Following a rookie season that involved a Calder Trophy, 85 points and Tavares subsequently leaving, Barzal came into this season with the world on his shoulders. Taking that pressure, he channeled it into a quality season. Did he have his struggles? Yes. Did he have some trouble adjusting to what Barry Trotz wants him to turn into? Yes. But, keeping his nose to the grindstone, he reminded all he’s still the fantastic talent that keeps Isles fans gushing for the future. Getting an All-Star nod (the first of hopefully many), putting the team on his back several times and his sound performance in his first playoff run, Barzal proved that he hasn’t even reached his peak. We saw how Trotz changed Alex Ovechkin in Washington; Barzal is on his way there.
The culture has changed.
That word “culture” was thrown around ad nauseam this year, but it’s exactly what the Islanders developed from training camp until last night. The entire feel around the organization shifted as they began to win and saw leadership and accountability at the forefront of it all. You could compared to my first point about the team becoming a family to the culture aspect, and it does have some of the same meaning. But overall, it was how the Isles — whether they were winning 15 of 19 games or getting blown out the few games that occurred — always went about things in a business-like fashion. That truly personified that things were finally different around here.
Barry Trotz and Lou Lamoriello.
Both might never have to buy a drink or meal again around these parts, and deservedly so. Trotz, from the minute he was announced as head coach, changed everything. What he was able to accomplish with this group was magnificent in so many ways. His message about everyone doubting this team was ingrained into the players and the fans minds, and it spoke volumes of just how much he cared about this organization and where it’s heading. Being nominated for the Jack Adams Award — and hopefully winning it — doesn’t do enough justice to the effect he he’s had on the franchise already.
As for Lamoriello, his organizational philosophy and savvy nature has the franchise in a better place then they’ve been in two-plus decades. Bringing in Trotz was a wonderful move, but it was his arrival that totally changed the outlook of the franchise from day one. Look at Bridgeport and excellent season they had; just one of the cogs that Lamoriello changed. He’s definitely got a lot of work on his hands in the coming months, but Lamoriello has this organization loaded with good prospects, young players who look like franchise pieces, and a current group that has only surpassed step one of his overall vision.
It’s been said and written countless times this season how much this year was a rebirth of sorts for the franchise, the roster and the fan base. But what people don’t know, is it meant so much more.
When Tavares left, this franchise was dead and buried. As the season started and eventually how it unfolded, you saw a team and its supporters come together as one to tell the critics and rest of the league “Fuck you, we don’t care what you think!” Anyone who covers or roots for this team will tell you the fans fell in love with this group. The players, the stories and personalities all resonated with the prove everybody wrong mantra. And man, those nights — the first game back at the Coliseum, that two month run in January and February, and the night Tavares returned to Long Island — all contributed to just how much this franchise and the fans had been re-invigorated.
It was a hell of a ride that’s hopefully only getting started. The franchise is finally on the track to success and maybe something even more memorable down the road.
Thank you to all that have followed, responded, or argued with me on Twitter or in person this season. It was a wonderful journey that me and no one could have predicted. We all came together as an army and all fought for this team and what it represented, both good and bad.
The Islanders are back.
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