Following a statement win against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the New York Islanders stepped up and defeated the Winnipeg Jets 2-1 for one of their most significant victories of the season. They played a slow, gritty, and tough game but one that allowed them to beat one of the best teams in the Western Conference in a one-goal game.
Suddenly, the Islanders look like a playoff team that can compete with the best teams in the NHL. With back-to-back wins, they have a 30-24-7 record, putting them in a wild card position in the Eastern Conference. Moreover, they have formed a new identity in the recent games, making them look like a much-improved team, led by their defense and goaltender Ilya Sorokin.
Sorokin Outduels Hellebuyck
Sorokin and Connor Hellebuyck are both having Vezina Trophy-caliber seasons. With the two facing off, the game looked poised to be one of the biggest goaltending duels of the season where goals would be hard to find.
Related: 5 Takeaways From Islanders 3-2 Win vs Penguins – 2/20/23
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The game lived up to the hype with both Hellebuyck and Sorokin’s talent on full display. The two goaltenders made remarkable saves in a game that saw only three total goals and kept their teams in the game until the end. However, Sorokin was the one that ultimately stepped up, leading the Islanders to victory.
While Sorokin didn’t make any memorable saves as he did in his recent performance against the Penguins, he put together another strong night in the net, saving 25 of the Jets’ 26 shots. The Jets have a great offense, averaging 3.14 goals per game and scoring four goals in their Feb. 20 win over the New York Rangers. However, they looked hapless against Sorokin who outdueled one of the best goaltenders in the league. He has carried the Islanders all season and his remarkable play continues to fuel the team, helping them improve their playoff position in the Eastern Conference.
Holmstrom’s Big Goal
The game was tied in the third period and with the way both Hellebuyck and Sorokin were playing, it became clear that the next goal would be the decisive one. The Islanders controlled the puck in the offensive zone and after a few quick centering passes, Simon Holmstrom collected a loose puck and fired it to the far side top shelf of the net for the game-winning goal. The Holmstrom shot was a great one since it caught Hellebuyck by surprise but was also to the far side, making it a difficult one to stop for the world-class goaltender.
Holmstrom has shown flashes of offense throughout the season and has proven he can be a valuable forward for the Islanders. He only has four goals but if he continues to find open shots in the offensive zone, he can become the sharpshooter on the wing that this offense needs. Against the Jets, Holmstrom found his open shot near the net and took advantage, allowing the Islanders to win the low-scoring game.
Islanders Shifting Identity
Under Barry Trotz, the Islanders were known for their hard-hitting and forecheck, especially in the offensive zone along the boards. It helped give them an advantage and set the tone for games, especially when the fourth line was on the ice. The chip and chase was an integral part of the offense and it helped the Islanders limit some of the best offenses in the league, allowing them to win low-scoring games.
First-year head coach Lane Lambert has shifted away from that style. Instead of the chip and chase, the Islanders will carry the puck into the offensive zone and play in a faster, more aggressive manner. Moreover, the defensemen are often joining the rush and playing a greater role in the offense altogether, a major shift from Trotz, who liked to play a safer brand that would result in fewer defensive miscues.
Recently, the Islanders have shifted back to that hard-hitting, defense-first mentality. Some of it has happened by default with the players called up from the minors being natural forechecking forwards with less skill. However, the new identity has allowed the Islanders to win consecutive games and might be their blueprint for reaching the playoffs.
Aho Steps Up at the Point
Sebastian Aho scored his fifth goal of the season with a shot off a rebound where Hellebuyck was out of position, providing an open net for the first goal of the game. Aho isn’t a great shooter from the point but he’s a great skater, which allowed him to score the goal. With the Islanders carrying the puck into the offensive zone on an odd-man rush, Aho joined the play and collected the second chance shot with the majority of the Jets behind the play.
The Islanders’ offensive success early on in the season came in part from the defensemen contributing to the offense. From joining the rush to finding open skaters on outlet passes to firing shots from the blue line, the defensemen helped open up the offense and make it one of the best in the league. With the pile-up of injuries at the forward position, particularly, Mathew Barzal who is week to week with a lower-body injury, the Islanders will need more contributions from the defense, especially in high-scoring games.
Other Takeaways From the Islanders’ Win
- Brock Nelson and Bo Horvat assisted on both of the Islanders’ goals. They have led the top two lines and are creating scoring chances for an offense that has otherwise struggled.
- The power play struggled, failing to score in all four of the opportunities. It was already a liability but without Barzal, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, and Oliver Wahlstrom, the unit has looked hapless.
- The defense stepped up and helped out Sorokin in this low-scoring game. The Islanders allowed only 26 shots on goal and the defensemen blocked 11 shots with Scott Mayfield leading the way with four.
What’s Next for the Islanders
The Islanders remain at USB Arena as they host the Los Angeles Kings on Feb. 24 before heading back on the road. The Kings are having a great season and like the Jets, are one of the best teams in the Western Conference but they will be playing the second game of a back-to-back and the Islanders have to take advantage of that.
The Islanders have turned their season around with the recent wins putting them in playoff position. The question is if they can continue playing at a high level with the injuries already mounting. There are only three games left until the trade deadline and they will determine what direction the Islanders will head in and the moves that general manager Lou Lamoriello will make.