In a remarkable turnaround, the New York Islanders have improved from last to first on defense, as they continue to rise in the standings.
There are no guarantees in hockey, but if one thing has proven to be true over the years, it’s that every team — even those that go on to win the Cup — experiences some bumps along the way.
This season, the New York Islanders are one of the most impressive — and surprising — stories in the league. In 45 games, the Islanders have shattered expectations and confused experts with their unique resurgence.
The season spans seven months and 82 games, but that doesn’t stop fans from being emotionally fickle.
This weekend, the Islanders were predictably unpredictable. On Saturday, the Islanders went 0-for-6 on the man advantage, as they dropped the second half of a home-and-home with the New York Rangers. “We weren’t able to capitalize,” said head coach Barry Trotz. On Sunday, the Islanders stunned the Tampa Bay Lightning with three goals in the first four minutes. With a 5-1 win over the league’s best club, the Islanders cemented themselves as the team that nobody actually knows anything about.
Truth be told, the Islanders are still trying to figure out who they are.
More than anything, this season is about discovering who the Islanders are as a team. Trotz likes to talk about how each game is a learning experience — even the blown leads and brutal losses.
The Islanders are 8-2-0 in their last 10 games, but they still have a ways to go before they will comfortably be in a playoff spot. That’s because while things have worked for the Islanders until this point, the players and coaches cannot be sure that it is sustainable.
Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss have proven to be one of the best goaltending duos in the league, but history has shown that teams can only ride the play of their netminders so far. Speaking to the media on Tuesday night, Lehner stressed that the Islanders are trying to stick to the structure, but like any other team, there are going to be breakdowns along the way.
Last season, the Islanders were among the worst defensive teams in modern history. Under the tutelage of head coach Doug Weight, the Islanders’ penalty kill of 73.2 percent ranked worst in franchise history, while their 3.57 goals-against average was the highest in the league since the 2006-07 season.
Remarkably, the Islanders have completed a historic turnaround this season. Through 45 games, the club has allowed just 2.56 goals per contest — the best mark in the entire league. The Islanders have also made strides on the penalty kill, jumping from worst to 20th in just a few months.
Trotz is known as a defensive-minded bench boss, so it isn’t surprising that structured defensive play has quickly become the team’s bread and butter.
But the Islanders are more than just a defensive team. If Lou Lamoriello made anything clear during the offseason, it was that the Islanders would play an old-school style of hockey, replete with the occasional fight and the systematic wearing down of the opponent.
The Islanders are the team nobody wants to play, not because they are the most technically sound or even the most skilled, but because they play the opposition tough every single night. Sometimes, the Islanders will drop two out of three to the Carolina Hurricanes and New York Rangers — to the anguish of the fans.
It is impossible to stick to the structure every shift of every game.
But most nights, the Islanders will compete at their highest level, leaving no doubt who they are: a squad not of misfits, but of professionals.
“I think everyone is real professional on this team,” Lehner told the media on Tuesday night. “Everyone shows up. We work hard. We try to stick to the structure… we’re playing for each other.”