The New York Islanders handed the Boston Bruins their third head-to-head loss of the season on Thursday night by a score of 7-2, including five goals in the third period. Now that the Bruins have gotten a good taste of each divisional opponent, it has become apparent that New York’s second team is the biggest threat to the Bruins in the East.
First, and most obviously, the Bruins have an 0-3 record against the Islanders so far this season, their worst record against any team. The games haven’t been particularly close either, as the Islanders seem to have figured out a winning formula against the Bruins. We will go into detail on this shortly.
In addition to their stellar play, the other top teams in the MassMutual East Division have weaknesses that the Bruins have managed to take advantage of. There are no such holes in this New York squad, from what we have seen.
A Game Of Match-Ups
Boston’s performances against New York don’t look bad on paper. They’ve won 55% of faceoffs and are neck-and-neck with the Islanders in shots per game. Thursday night was actually their best game against New York statistically, despite the lopsided score. Thirty-six shots and just six giveaways looks likes a winning formula, but the Islanders beat the Bruins in other ways: neutralizing top players, stronger special teams, fewer penalties, and better goaltending.
Boston’s top-heavy offensive attack simply cannot get going against this team. The Perfection Line has been non-existent in two of the three games, while New York’s top line of Mat Barzal, Jordan Eberle and Anders Lee has dominated. This is the first and most important key to the Islanders’ success. To beat the Bruins, you must limit the production of that top line.
On the other end of the ice, the Islander blueliners simply outmatch Boston’s hobbled defense, and Semyon Varlamov is perhaps the only goalie in the East who can hang with Tuukka Rask. He made 34 saves last night, while Jaroslav Halak imploded late in the third period, giving up rebound after rebound.
The Islanders have outplayed the Bruins position by position. They do not commit any dumb penalties or five-minute majors, and they are still dangerous short-handed. They have the character game plan to beat Boston in a seven-game series, especially if they have the home-ice advantage. The Islanders have been remarkably good playing on Long Island this season, having yet to suffer a regulation loss there. They can beat anyone at Nassau Coliseum.
Other East Division Contenders Have Missing Pieces
Another reason the Islanders feel more dangerous than other top teams in the East is that from what we have seen, those other teams have weaknesses that the Bruins can exploit.
The Washington Capitals, now tied with Boston with 24 points, are not strong in net. After losing Henrik Lundqvist for the season and Ilya Samsonov to start the year, rookie Vitek Vanecek has been the go-to starter. He has performed above expectations but still not great, with a lackluster .909 save percentage and 2.86 goals against average. He has also given up five goals to the Bruins twice. Samsonov will probably take the job back when he returns, but the situation is now muddier than it should be.
The Capitals boast four strong offensive lines, but aside from John Carlson, their defensive lineup leaves a lot to be desired. Zdeno Chara has not lived up to expectations in Washington, and nobody else poses much of a threat to score. Boston has a similar problem, though not as pronounced. Jeremy Lauzon and Matt Grzelcyk will make the Bruins’ blue line much more dynamic when they return.
The Philadelphia Flyers do have several defensemen who are capable of scoring, and their top six is among the most deadly in the league. However, they seem to have a hard time putting together a full 60-minute effort. Carter Hart is mostly to blame here, as his confidence seems to rise and fall between games. A gritty veteran group like the Bruins can pick on Hart, but they can’t shake Varlamov’s confidence so easily.
Most recently, the Flyers almost gave up a 4-2 lead to the struggling New York Rangers on Wednesday night. These are games that an elite team should be able to close out without much issue. The Islanders are clearly more consistent than the Flyers from the opening face-off to the final horn.
The Pittsburgh Penguins’ top six may be better than Boston’s overall, and their defense, though dealing with injury issues of their own, can still get production from all three pairs. They are starting to get healthy, and have won three of their last four games. Their only weakness is goaltending. While Varlamov has secured his spot as the Islanders’ top goalie, Tristan Jarry’s role is not set in stone, as Casey DeSmith is still nipping at his heels. The Bruins would certainly rather face either of them than Varlamov.
Islanders Are Scary Playoff Opponent
After a slow start, the Islanders lead the East with a 7-2-1 record in the last 10 games and have climbed up to third in the division rankings. Their plus-six point differential is second only to Boston (plus-10), and nine different players have registered eight or more points. This is a well-balanced hockey team that has fully bought in to Barry Trotz’s game plan. They play a full 60-minute game and never beat themselves, which cannot be said for the other contenders in the East at the moment.
A team can have a successful regular season through star power and flashy play, but the playoffs give rise to one or two teams that the rest of the league dreads to meet. Those teams are often tight-knit groups, led by home-grown players and hardened by recent playoff runs. The Islanders look and feel like one of those teams.
Though not as flashy as the Capitals or Penguins, they have managed to play better hockey against the Bruins than any other team. They have exhibited a great deal of toughness and character in those games, and a recent appearance in the Eastern Conference Final shows that they are ready to win now. They got a taste of championship gold, and now they want some more.
I cover the Boston Bruins for The Hockey Writers. Fan of all things New England sports.