Islanders Weekly: Defense, Young Stars Lead the Way

It’s still too early to tell what the New York Islanders’ identity will be this season, specifically under new head coach Lane Lambert. Their opening two games were a mixed bag – a 3-1 (empty net) loss to the Florida Panthers and a 7-1 win against the Anaheim Ducks. However, at least they found a way to turn things around after their first loss. Here’s a look back on the week and the Islanders’ schedule ahead.

Islanders’ Kids Lead the Way

The main takeaway from the first two games is that the defense led the way in the scoring department, netting six of the team’s first eight goals of the season. However, aside from Anders Lee (32) and Scott Mayfield (who turned 30 against the Ducks), the team’s leading scorers are all 25 and under. This isn’t to say that the “elder statesmen” haven’t made an impact – Mayfield had two goals against the Ducks – but if the Islanders are going to move forward under Lambert in a more aggressive, offensively focused system, they will need the “kids” to make the most impact. So far, they have, including a wonderful goal by Oliver Wahlstrom on a breakaway against the Ducks.

Wahlstrom’s overall game, which also included an assist, got the attention of his coach. “Obviously, it’s going to help him a lot,” Lambert said. “That’s one of his strengths is to be able to score. But I look at the overall game, and the little things — he was very good on the walls getting pucks out, solid defensively. … It was a good night for him” (from “Young Islanders Oliver Wahlstrom, Anthony Beauvillier start strong,” The Athletic, 10/16/2022).

Wahlstrom’s goal also happened to be the prettiest of the bunch, but rookie Robin Salo has two goals, and Noah Dobson scored in back-to-back games to start the season. Of course, there’s also the breakout-prone Anthony Beauvillier, who’s had a strong start to his season, collecting two points against the Ducks. He started the game a little slow, but his energetic style of play began to shine through alongside Lee and Brock Nelson as the game went on.

Islanders Learning on the Fly

The game against the Ducks showed what Lambert and the Islanders are aiming for this season. The team’s more aggressive style, led by an involved defense, helped to create more opportunities through their transition game and by jumping into the play as it moved down the ice. For a team that didn’t score more than six goals in a game all of last season, the ability to get seven against the Ducks is no small feat.

“It’s crucial because, as we know, it’s a hard league to score in. You need help from your defense to join the rush and create some odd-number rushes. Our forwards are doing a really good job of going to the net and when we deliver pucks, we’re there.”

– Lane Lambert

The win was very different from the loss two nights earlier to the Panthers. The Islanders’ largely uninspired play confirmed what some were concerned about heading into this season. A lack of energy, five penalties, and a lapse in focus on the game-winning goal, which came directly after the Islanders tied the game, was a continuation of the team’s preseason, which was messy, to say the least. As my The Hockey Writers colleague Mike Fink pointed out, despite the shot count being in the Islanders’ favor – 33-29, the Panthers outshot the Islanders 20-15 from the second period as the Islanders were unable to find any momentum aside from their goal.

With 80 games left and a busy week ahead, New York has time to adjust to Lambert’s system. The rubber meets the road in October, and, hopefully, by November, they will be well on their way to becoming a top-eight team in the Eastern Conference.

Islanders’ Week Ahead

On Tuesday, Oct. 18, the Islanders kick off four games in six nights, including a back-to-back, against the San Jose Sharks. The Sharks haven’t won a game yet this season, so it will be an opportunity for a let-down game if the Islanders don’t pounce on the Sharks early. So far, it seems Ilya Sorokin will get the lion’s share of the starts. Still, with a dense schedule to end the month, including two sets of back-to-backs, Semyon Varlamov will see some time over the next couple of weeks, one of which might be against the Sharks, to get his feet wet.

Ilya Sorokin New York Islanders
Ilya Sorokin helping to lead the way for the New York Islanders this season (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The New Jersey Devils and Tampa Bay Lightning haven’t had a strong start either, meaning the Islanders must be on their toes all week long. Historically, they have played up to their opponents, matching up well despite an imbalance of talent. Against weaker teams, they’ve struggled to capitalize. If the game against the Ducks is any indication of a change in approach this season, then we may not have anything to be worried about. The Islanders end the week with a potential pallet cleanser against the Panthers. It’s an early opportunity to move forward with lessons learned. After that, as The Athletic’s Kevin Kurz pointed out, the schedule doesn’t get easier, with games against the New York Rangers, Carolina Hurricanes, and defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche on deck after this week.

Related: Islanders’ 7 Keys to Winning the 2023 Stanley Cup

Defense and the team’s young players will be key to a successful season. From the net out, the biggest impact players need to show up night in and night out. Sorokin has shown a slightly heavier workload doesn’t bother him, from games played to shots against, so the defense should feel comfortable continuing to jump into the play and create offense with him in the crease. The forwards also need to continue to push the pace, as with Wahlstrom’s goal and several opportunities against the Ducks, jumping ahead of the play and backing up the opposition’s defense to create space. This week will tell us a little bit more about who the Islanders are, and hopefully, they can create a little momentum along the way.

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