The New York Islanders started the 2022-23 season with a historically great penalty kill. They successfully killed a franchise record 28 penalties in a row and through the first 10 games, have only allowed two power-play goals. While both power-play goals were allowed in recent games, with one being allowed in the 5-4 win over the Colorado Avalanche and the other being allowed in the 3-1 win over the Chicago Blackhawks, the unit has remained a strength.
The Islanders have killed 32 of the 34 penalties they have faced this season, which has been one of the many reasons for the strong start that includes a 6-4 record and a four-game winning streak. A good penalty kill appears like a backhanded compliment since the only reason it’s good, to begin with, is because the Islanders have taken a lot of penalties. However, the ability to keep games scoreless on the man advantage has shown a lot of essential traits to a successful season, specifically discipline on the ice and good defense. So, why has the penalty kill been a strength, and will the unit remain a strength throughout the season?
Islanders Defensemen Stepping Up
The defensive unit has carried the Islanders in recent seasons, and this year has been no exception. Along with allowing only 2.50 goals per game, the defensemen have been a major factor in the offensive production, scoring eight of the team’s 36 goals. However, the unit has been best on the penalty kill.
When the Islanders have been shorthanded, they’ve seen Adam Pelech, Ryan Pulock, and Scott Mayfield, the veterans on the defense, step up and keep opponents from finding the back of the net. Mayfield had led the unit with 3:48 ice time on the penalty kill, but all three veterans have notably excelled at creating turnovers and stepping up in the slot to limit effective shots and easy scoring chances.
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In addition, Noah Dobson and offseason acquisition Alexander Romanov have not only been a dynamic young pair in general but have also stepped up in the penalty kill. Dobson and Romanov have completed the defense in a way that it hasn’t been in previous years, as they have provided much-needed youth and speed to the unit, which has subsequently given the team a reliable deep penalty kill.
The Islanders might have one of their best defensive units this season, with no glaring weakness at the position. While it’s benefitted them across the board, the shorthanded situations have seen a great defense pay off immensely.
Cizikas, Pageau & Parise
The defense was expected to be an integral part of the penalty-killing success, but the surprise has been the play from the forwards. Jean-Gabriel Pageau, who leads the forwards with 2:58 ice time on the penalty kill, along with Casey Cizikas, and Zach Parise, have been the primary forwards on the ice and have allowed the Islanders to have an exceptional unit. The three skaters have done a great job in the defensive zone, staying in their gaps to prevent opponents from finding open shots, but it’s once they control the puck that they’ve been most impactful.
Parise has thrived at clearing the puck out of the zone, allowing the Islanders to reset in their zone and maintain a strong position. Pageau and Cizikas, who are two of the best defensive centers on the Islanders, have created turnovers and carried the puck out of the zone, occasionally creating a rush the other way to help kill time on the penalty. The puck handling of the Islanders forwards has set them apart from the rest of the league on the penalty kill as it’s allowing them to apply pressure on the opposing but also most effectively keep opponents from scoring.
Sorokin & Varlamov Providing Stability in Net
The skaters on the ice have made the penalty kill a strength, but ultimately, the goaltending has kept it one of the best in the league. Ilya Sorokin and Semyon Varlamov lead one of the best goaltending duos in the NHL, and during the strong start to the season, they’ve given the Islanders an advantage in the net on a nightly basis. The penalty kill has been no exception, with both Sorokin and Varlamov constantly covering up the puck and making acrobatic saves when needed.
Both goals that the two goaltenders allowed this season came on scoring chances where the opposing team made a great play to find the back of the net and weren’t the fault of the goaltenders. Against the Avalanche, Evan Rodrigues found an open shot from the slot on a quick pass, and Varlamov was out of position, allowing for the rare power-play goal. Likewise, Sorokin’s only goal allowed shorthanded came from a re-directed puck by Jonathan Toews on a shot from the point, a goal that was the only one in the game for the Blackhawks. Otherwise, the Islanders have seen their two goaltenders step up in the rare instance when the skaters allow a shot on the net, they’ve made the big saves.
Can The Islanders Kill Remain a Strength?
The Islanders are going to regress from the strong start they’ve had to the season. 28 consecutive penalties killed is a remarkable stretch that the team will be lucky to even come close to nearing. However, the unit has proven that it will be a strength this year, specifically, with how they are preventing teams from finding the back of the net in shorthanded situations. The roster is built from the goaltending onward, and the penalty kill is when it’s on full display.
The strong penalty kill is one of the attributes that will catapult the Islanders to the playoffs. Furthermore, it’s a strength that will benefit the team in playoff matchups against teams that thrive on power-play goals and hope to control games following penalties. First-year head coach Lane Lambert has emphasized a fast-paced game for the Islanders, one where they can play more aggressively to improve the offense, but when the teams need to tighten up and kill penalties, they can do just that.
Mike Fink joined The Hockey Writers in November 2020 and covers the New York Islanders. In addition to covering the Islanders, Fink writes about the NHL at large and contributes as a weekly guest to The Hockey Writers Podcast. Follow Mike on Twitter @Finks_thoughts for more Islanders and general hockey insights.