Oh, how a week makes all the difference in the early throws of an NHL season. Following a three-game skid resulting in a 2-4-0 record, the New York Islanders now sit at 7-5-0, comfortably in the running for a wild card spot – for the time being. They’ve managed wins against some of the league’s best, quite impressively, and made sure not to play down to teams they knew they should beat outside of a questionable game against the Detroit Red Wings. What changed for the Islanders from week one to week two? Let’s dive into five takeaways from their five-game win streak and how they’ve found success early in the season.
Islanders are Scoring by Committee
Say what you will about what the Islanders’ offense looks like on paper, but this is a team that, despite lacking top-offensive firepower outside of star Mathew Barzal, is reasonably deep. I’ve even joked the Islanders have had three second lines for the better part of three or four seasons, which is less of a criticism than it is an honest assessment of the talent when compared to other rosters. But this season, they’ve shown what many suspected they were capable of under Barry Trotz but simply weren’t given the leash to do – push the pace of the offense, especially from the back end.
Their success with Trotz, particularly during the first season and ensuing first-round playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, showed what discipline and energy could do to a team not so far removed from back-to-back Stanley Cups. Over time, however, it seemed to put a bit of a governor on the team’s ability to really push the pace in the offensive zone.
Under head coach Lane Lambert, the governor has been removed, and it’s clear so far that they can really score some goals. Additionally, some lines are really clicking. I spoke a number of times on the Nassaumen Hockey Podcast over the summer that I thought a line of Zach Parise, J.G. Pageau, and Kyle Palmieri would be a great third line for the Islanders. A veteran presence that can go out there and play a specific role, but provided the team with a really solid offensive punch when they needed to access some depth. So far, that’s really worked for Lambert.
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The rest of the lineup appears to be clicking, too, including a seemingly rejuvenated fourth line. After a season that looked like the end of the Islanders’ identity line, made up of Cal Clutterbuck, Casey Cizikas, and Matt Martin, they’ve come back with a vengeance in 2022-23. And though Barzal has yet to score a goal, he’s still creating offense, assisting on 11 goals so far this season and beginning to shoot the puck a little more often as the season continues. Oliver Wahlstrom has been a direct recipient of Barzal’s assists, picking up four goals in 12 games. Anders Lee and Brock Nelson, who have scored six and five goals respectively, are clicking nicely, a product of a reunion last season that seems to have plenty of legs. Nelson scored 37 goals in 72 games last season and has 42 in his last 84.
Altogether, the Islanders have scored 41 goals so far this season in 12 games, good for sixth in the NHL and certainly not something we would have guessed heading into this season, even with the change in coaching. How long it lasts, however, is a different story.
Islanders High Risk, High Reward
Something the Islanders rarely did under Trotz, for fear of punishment, was take a lot of chances. Everything under him was very calculated and measured, and while this came with a degree of success, there was a limit on how far it would take them. And though success equaled back-to-back Conference Final appearances, they still came up short on offense. This season, however, the Islanders are playing a bit of high-risk hockey, but are left with a high reward on the other side.
It would also be fair to say they’ve been a bit lucky, riding a bit of a PDO (shooting percentage + save percentage) bender in the first part of this season. The Islanders currently sit second in the league with a 102, mostly carried by their team save percentage, which is good and mostly reliable considering how consistent Ilya Sorokin has been the last two seasons. But there are other sources of “puck luck” the Islanders are benefiting from, like Noah Dobson’s play knocking a puck down out of mid-air after a Barzal turnover to deny a breakaway and quickly turning that into a goal.
“Yeah, it’s a high-risk, high-reward play,” Dobson said after the game. “Either way you’re kind of caught in no man’s land if it gets past you, you’d try and catch the guy … it was definitely a risk. It paid off. Sometimes you’ve got to take a chance like that.” (From “Still improving, Noah Dobson keys Islanders’ fifth consecutive win with ‘heady play’,” The Athletic 11/4/2022).
Can the Islanders expect to continue that sort of luck? It wouldn’t be wise, as we saw against the Red Wings in an overall dull game by the Islanders. But at this stage in the season, when points are so valuable, you ride that luck until you can’t and adjust quickly after it fades. If they can continue to build confidence, it may keep finding its way back to the Islanders.
Islanders’ Sorokin Spectacular Start
Islanders’ forward Matt Martin said it best following the team’s latest win against the St. Louis Blues and yet another spectacular performance by Sorokin in net. “You see it every night with this guy and he’s just spectacular,” Martin said. “He seems to make really big saves when we really need them. Just a tremendous goalie, a tremendous teammate, and honestly, we’re lucky to have him.”
The Islanders are able to take more chances when they know they have someone who can stop the puck at the other end of the ice. He’s been the backbone of this team’s success dating back to last season, putting up spectacular numbers despite the team’s lack of success. And this season, he seems to be finding a different gear each and every night.
Islanders’ Strong Penalty Kill
The Islanders are 38 for 42 while a man down this season, which is 90.48 percent, good for third in the league by a healthy margin. Their success on the penalty kill has been a major reason for the team’s five-game win streak, but their ability to find it while down a player has been with the team all season, even through an earlier three-game losing streak. Leading the way are Casey Cizikas, Pageau, and Parise, who have been lauded for their ability to angle players in all three zones, and, as my colleague Mike Fink stated, it’s come down to smart plays clearing the puck after creating a turnover.
The Islanders head into back-to-back games with the Calgary Flames and New York Rangers early this week, the latter of which has been struggling lately. It’ll be another good test for both goaltenders as well as the forwards, who now have a lot of pressure to remain hot. If they can continue to find success as a committee, however, this team can restart a winning streak and stay afloat in a busy Eastern Conference.
Jon Zella is a 31-year-old, Long Island native currently living in Syracuse, NY. Outside of hockey, he enjoys motorcycles, beer, coffee, and his dog Olive.