The New York Islanders lost back-to-back games to the Detroit Rew Wings and Chicago Blackhawks over the weekend to extend their losing streak to 11 games. Their last three losses were all in overtime, so they earned three points to gain ground, albeit slightly, in the Metropolitan Division, even as the losses continue to pile up.
The Islanders returned from their Covid-19 two-game break desperate for wins but lost all three and only have five wins on the season. Many things stood out in the last few games that not only explain the team’s struggles but also provide hope for a mid-season turnaround.
The Islanders Need Shots From the Point
A reoccurring issue this season has been the Islanders’ struggles from the point, failing to establish a scoring presence at the blue line to open up the opposition’s defense in the offensive zone. Nick Leddy was one of the Islanders’ best two-way skaters, who could create turnovers and find the open skaters at the blue line, while Ryan Pulock had the best slap shot. Neither defenseman is in the lineup – Leddy was traded in the offseason, and Pulock is out with a lower-body injury – so the team desperately needs a defenseman to step up.
However, some of their younger defensemen have generated offense from the point recently, highlighted by the 3-2 loss to the Blackhawks when both of the team’s goals came from the point. The opening goal came on the power play, and while it was credited to Jean-Gabriel Pageau, the goal came on a redirected shot from 25-year-old defenseman Sebastian Aho. Aho, among other d-men, provided the offensive production with shots through traffic or created chaos in the offensive zone to allow a center like Pageau or Anders lee to collect the loose puck.
Ultimately, defensemen helping to share the offensive load will be pivotal in helping the Islanders rebound this season, especially while the offense struggles. That leaves head coach Barry Trotz with a tough decision on how he will use veteran defenseman Zdeno Chara. Chara is still playing defense at a high level but is holding the offense back, failing to spring the forwards off a turnover or open up the point. Recent games have proven the Islanders their young talent on the blue line might be what turns the season into a successful one.
Dobson Emerging as the Best Defenseman
The game-tying goal against the Blackhawks with only seconds remaining in the game to force overtime might have been the best moment in Noah Dobson’s young career. It was his first goal of the season and a hopeful sign of what is in store for Dobson, who has been the Islanders’ best defenseman through the first 20 games, and the past two were no exception.
Dobson is one of the best blue line skaters on the team, and with the combination of injuries and the Covid-19 outbreak, the more experienced players needed to step up and tie up the opposition in the neutral zone and on the rush. Dobson has created turnovers in all three zones and recently stepped up near the net, breaking up passes and getting off quick shots.
Varlamov Ready for More Starts
Semyon Varlamov saved 24 of 26 shots in the Islanders’ recent shootout loss to the Blackhawks and only fell in the final goaltending duel against Marc-Andre Fleury. After making his season debut on Nov. 7 against the Minnesota Wild, Varlamov has started five games and has split starts or backed up the younger Ilya Sorokin. However, his recent performances have proven that the 34-year-old veteran can and should take on the starting role, especially for a struggling team, to give Sorokin more nights off. A strong and fresh goaltending duo could turn the team’s season around.
Other Islanders Takeaways From the Overtime Defeats
The losses in overtime are a reminder that the Islanders are not a good team at 3-on-3 with space for both teams to make plays. With Brock Nelson out of the lineup, the team simply doesn’t have the playmakers to take advantage of the extra period. Against Chicago, they refused to pressure the Blackhawks to avoid a quick scoring chance the other way.
The overtime losses are frustrating, especially since the Islanders have not won a game since early November. However, they are playing better than their record indicates, and the wins are expected to come as the roster improves and as the season progresses.
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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.