Islanders Are the Eastern Conference’s Dark Horse Contender

The New York Islanders have spent most of this season battling to clinch a berth in the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs. However, following a 2-1 shootout victory over the Washington Capitals, they now have 87 points on the season and have created a six-point gap between themselves and the Florida Panthers, who currently sit outside of the playoff picture with seven games remaining.

Despite a season with inconsistent results, the Islanders look to be locking their game in at the right time. Recently, they put the Metropolitan Divison on notice with a 5-1 statement win over the New Jersey Devils. With each playoff season bringing forward its own surprises, it isn’t out of the question to call the Islanders the dark horse favorite in the Eastern Conference this year.

Islanders Near Full Health Entering Playoffs

Throughout the season, the Islanders have had to deal with their share of injuries to key players. The pillar of their defensive corps, Adam Pelech, missed extensive time after suffering a head injury following a hit from St. Louis Blues defender Robert Bortuzzo on Dec. 6. The club posted a 7-9-5 record in the 21 games Pelech missed. He returned to the lineup on Jan. 23 against the Toronto Maple Leafs and since then, the Islanders have posted a 15-8-4 record.

New York Islanders Adam Pelech Arizona Coyotes Josh Archibald
New York Islanders Adam Pelech and Arizona Coyotes Josh Archibald (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Another key player, forward Kyle Palmieri, also missed significant time due to injury. The dependable veteran missed 27 games, and after shaking the rust off, he is now starting to provide the club with some much-needed offensive support. The 32-year-old has 15 goals and 16 assists for 31 points in 48 games this season. He led the way in the 5-1 win against the Devils with two goals and one assist. Over his last ten games, he has scored five goals and six assists.

Forward Oliver Wahlstrom has been sidelined since Dec. 27 with a lower-body injury and has yet to resume skating. He had seven goals and nine assists with an average ice time of 12:10 through 35 games. Mathew Barzal is also sidelined with a lower-body injury suffered on Feb. 18 against the Boston Bruins. The Islanders’ offensive leader also hasn’t skated since his injury. He was initially listed as week-to-week but is expected to return before the end of the season which is excellent news for the team.

Mathew Barzal New York Islanders
Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

With all the injuries, the Islanders have rarely had the opportunity to ice a roster with a full bill of health. However, if Barzal’s original prognosis is correct, he should be nearing a return in time for the club to close out the regular season. The current health of the roster, combined with the impending return of Barzal, makes for a lineup that will be difficult for their playoff opposition to deal with.

Islanders’ Stellar Defence Will Be A Huge Factor

When the puck drops for the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs, teams will tighten up their play, and strong defence can be pivotal throughout a best-of-seven series. Fortunately for the Islanders, their strength in recent years has been on the defensive side of the ice. Not far removed from Barry Trotz’s tenure as head coach, the club has retained the solid defensive play instilled by their former bench boss. With the Islanders ranking fourth, averaging 2.68 goals-against per game, first-year head coach Lane Lambert has done an excellent job continuing that aspect of their game.

The Boston Bruins know firsthand just how frustrating the Islanders’ defence can be going back to their second-round series against each other in the 2021 Playoffs. Largely due to the defense pairing of Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock, they were able to shut down the Bruins and advance to the Eastern Conference Final before eventually losing to the Tampa Bay Lightning in a hard-fought seven-game series.

Alexander Romanov New York Islanders
Alexander Romanov, New York Islanders (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The defence pairings have been altered since that deep playoff run but the combination of Pelech, Pulock, Scott Mayfield, Noah Dobson, and offseason acquisition Alexander Romanov make for a stellar back end. Romanov has quietly made leaps and bounds in his game since coming over from the Montreal Canadiens. The 6-foot-1, 215-pound defender has been a physical force for the Islanders, compiling 194 hits through 74 games.

Islanders’ Physicality Will Wear Teams Down

This Islanders roster is full of grit and sandpaper, everything you need to be successful in the trenches during a hard-fought best-of-seven playoff series. They will wear teams down with their physical play and it’s bound to take a toll on their opponents as the series progresses. With 2,012 hits as a team, the Islanders rank fourth in the league in the category.

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Matt Martin ranks second in the league with 274 hits on the season. Cal Clutterbuck has 166 hits in just 42 games and Casey Cizikas isn’t afraid to throw the body around either with 170 hits. The heavy forecheck and physicality will also create some high-quality scoring chances as opposing teams will be more prone to turning the puck over along the boards.

Matt Martin New York Islanders
Matt Martin, New York Islanders (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

When the Islanders aren’t throwing hits they also have no problem with sacrificing the body to block shots. As a team, they have totaled 1,237 blocks this season, which also ranks fourth in the league. Mayfield leads the team with 157 blocks while Romanov isn’t far behind with 127.

Vezina Candidate Ilya Sorokin Has the Ability To Steal Games

While the Islanders boast one of the top goaltending tandems in the league between Ilya Sorokin and Semyon Varlamov, traditionally a championship team will rely on the elite performance of one goalie for the duration of the playoffs. Sorokin has elevated his game this season to becoming nearly a lock as a Vezina Trophy finalist. His elite level of play should also put him into the conversation for the Hart Memorial Trophy as he has been the backbone of the team for the entirety of the season.

Sorokin is tied for the league lead in shutouts with five. He also has put together a record of 27-19-7 in a career-high 55 starts this season. He has a 2.36 goals-against average (GAA) and a .924 save percentage (SV%) which rank fifth and third respectively amongst all NHL goaltenders. He also has 36.2 goals saved above expected which ranks second behind Vezina frontrunner Linus Ullmark.

Miles Wood of the New Jersey Devils gets a chance on Ilya Sorokin of the New York Islanders
Miles Wood of the New Jersey Devils gets a chance on Ilya Sorokin of the New York Islanders (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

With the young Russian goaltender in between the pipes, the Islanders don’t need a huge amount of offensive support to win games. The 27-year-old has the ability to be a game-breaker and could steal a game or two during a playoff series.

Opposing Teams Shouldn’t Underestimate Islanders

All in all, the Islanders will be a formidable playoff opponent for whoever matches up with them in the first round. Too frequently, a higher-ranked team will come into a series underestimating their underdog opposition and it could prove costly in a series with the roster the Islanders have iced this season.

Time and time again new playoff stories emerge, from the 2012 Los Angeles Kings winning the Stanley Cup as the eighth seed, to young goalies such as Patrick Roy of the 1986 Montreal Canadiens and Cam Ward of the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes leading their teams to Stanley Cup championships. This season could be the year that the Islanders and Sorokin write their own Cinderella story by taking the Eastern Conference by storm.

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Let’s not forget with six games left in the regular season the Islanders still need to lock down a wild-card spot but if, and when they do, don’t be surprised to see them push their first-round competitors to the brink. Stay tuned and let’s see what kind of NHL history is written this spring.