The 2019-20 New York Islanders went on an unexpected run to the Eastern Conference Final thanks in part to a 13-9 playoff record. The team won their play-in series against the Florida Panthers (3-1), then beat the Washington Capitals (4-1) before besting the Philadelphia Flyers in seven games series (4-3). The eventual Stanley Cup champions, Tampa Bay Lightning, were the team to eliminate the upstart kids from Long Island in six games.
When you examine all the factors that led to the remarkable run, a handful of numbers tell the 2019-20 Islanders tale. One statistic, in particular, stood out more than others, which was shots on goal. In 22 playoff games, they finished +15 in shots for/shots against (659-644). The Tampa Bay series was the only time they got outshot, 213-165 (-48), explaining why they struggled in the six games.
So far in the 2020-21 playoffs, the Islanders are 5-4 and have been outshot in eight of their nine games. The only time they outshot an opponent was Game 3 against the Pittsburgh Penguins, 30-27, which ended in a 5-4 loss. The Boston Bruins, their second-round opponents, hold the lead in shots by 33, 123-90, to go along with their one-game series lead. It is no big surprise considering the Bruins finished third overall in shots during the regular season.
Overall, the blue and orange are currently -77 against their opponent’s shot totals, 354-277. Those numbers don’t include blocked shots, which produce even worse numbers. After nine games, they have 147 blocks, but their opponents have deflected 90 of their shot attempts, meaning the final numbers look like this: 501-381 for a difference of 120. We could sit here and analyze even more statistics, but the shots on goal with blocked shots thrown in really paint a picture that this year’s team is struggling to create the necessary opportunities to win hockey games.
Breaking Down the 2020-21 Regular Season
There will be some pundits who think the Islanders are where they are because of lucky bounces. That may be true, especially with the wild Game 2 overtime win against the Bruins, yet there will be plenty of supporters who say the Islanders are using their limited chances to score timely goals and hold on for victories. The last part may be accurate; however, it does put a lot of pressure on Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin to stand on their head to secure the victory.
To add some context to this analysis is a breakdown of the 2020-21 regular season. The Islanders finished in fourth place in the MassMutual Eastern Division with a 32-17-7 record for 71 points. Six of the eight teams in the division finished with winning records, while only five teams finished with a positive differential in goals scored/goals against and shots on goal.
The Islanders won their regular-season matchups against their second-round opponents, the Bruins, 5-3; however, they were only +3 in goals scored and outshot by 53 in eight games. When they played their first-round opponents, the Penguins, the Isles went 2-6, getting outscored by seven but collecting more shots, 236-215. In eight contests against the other playoff-bound team from the division, the Capitals, their record was 2-6, getting outscored 24-18 but winning the shots battle 226-224.
Most fans understand that it was tough seasons for the New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils, Buffalo Sabres, and Philadelphia. Only the Rangers and Flyers had winning records, while the Devils and Sabres struggled to collect points. The Islanders went 6-2 against three of those teams, Rangers, Devils, and Sabres, while going 5-3 against the Flyers. In three of those series, they outshot their opponents, with only the Flyers giving them trouble. In six contests against the Broad Street Bullies, the two teams witnessed their games go the distance in either overtime or a shootout. The Islanders were +6 in goals scored, 23-17, but were outshot 227-212 for a difference of 15.
The Islanders finished with 1,623 shots on goal this season, good for 22nd overall and fifth within the division. Currently, the team sits at 269 shots in the playoffs, which is fifth overall, behind the Carolina Hurricanes, Bruins, Vegas Golden Knights, and Lightning. Their game average is 30.8, which ranks 12th out of 16 playoff teams, while their opponent’s game average is 39.3, the second-highest in the league behind the now eliminated Nashville Predators.
Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the System
Commentators love to point out how bad the Islanders have been outplayed for long stretches but hang around and win hockey games. They say that the team has bought into Barry Trotz’s defense-first mentality, which focuses on protecting their end of the ice at all costs.
The Islanders may only be down one game in the second round of the playoffs. However, they are playing a tough Bruins team that can beat you on both ends of the ice. They average 37.4 shots a game and have outscored opponents 26-17 to this point. To make this a real series and keep their playoff hopes alive, the Islanders need to create more shots on Boston goalie Tuuka Rask. Amazingly, they have scored 28 goals in nine games, so it’s not like they can’t find the back of the net. Right now, they can’t sit around and let a team on a mission, like Boston, control the majority of the contest in hopes of catching a lucky bounce.
In 2019-20 the Islanders played a system that brought them a lot of success during the playoff grind. This year, with the same design in place, the results have been a little mixed. There have been teams who thrive in situations when they are down a few goals or are outplayed from start to finish. However, even with this group of talented forwards, this style of play could end up costing them their season one or two rounds earlier than they hope.
Ryan Gagne is back for his second tour of duty with The Hockey Writers. In 2021 he wrote about the New York Islanders and now will embrace the challenge of covering the Calgary Flames. The best part of this new assignment is Ryan currently lives in Edmonton and will get to see both sides of the Battle of Alberta up close and personal. None of this will make much sense since he was born and raised in New England and the Boston Bruins are his still team.