Islanders Weekly: Roller Coaster November Continues

The New York Islanders are in the midst of a roller-coaster November, which has taken a turn for the worse over the last 10 days despite book-end wins on their recent road trip. Losses to teams below them in the standings, including back-to-back losses allowing five goals in each game, have ignited calls by fans for a trade to bolster the roster. The Islanders managed to squeeze out a win against the Toronto Maple Leafs, 3-2 in overtime on November 21st, but that may be the only measure of success in the game. It was an ugly game from a rudderless team at the moment.

Islanders Continue Poor Starts

With some recency bias clouding my vision, the Islanders’ first period against the Toronto Maple Leafs was emblematic of a larger trend in November. Despite their 6-4-0 record, which includes some impressive come-from-behind wins over the last month, how they’re starting games isn’t a recipe for long-term success, and certainly not a serious playoff contender at the moment.

When asked about their poor starts, head coach Lane Lambert said he wouldn’t necessarily call it a trend. “You always look at every different facet and aspect,” he said, following the Islanders’ 5-4 loss against the Nashville Predators on November 17th. “But I wouldn’t call it a trend. It’s happened, though, but I wouldn’t call it a trend” (from “Islanders’ Lou Lamoriello ‘pleased with the progress,’ but poor starts need fixing,” The Athletic, 11/18/2022).

Lane Lambert New York Islanders
Lane Lambert, New York Islanders (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

As Casey Cizikas said in that same article, you can’t always come back in the NHL, and the Islanders need to find a way to be engaged earlier. Could starting the fourth line, as Barry Trotz did for four seasons on a fairly regular basis, be the answer? It’s possible. Cizikas, Matt Martin, and Cal Clutterbuck, who is now the NHL’s all-time hits leader, still have the ability to change the momentum of a game, so maybe Lambert should give them a chance to start a game and put the team on the right track from the opening face off.

Related: 5 Takeaways From Islanders’ 3-2 Win vs Maple Leafs – 11/21/22

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Regardless of their ability to come back in games or withstand onslaughts from opposing teams buoyed by their goaltending, the Islanders need to find a way to be engaged early and eliminate their seemingly endless list of mistakes. If they can’t right the ship, there’s a good chance they won’t be able to tread water this season.

Islanders’ Massive Mistakes

To say that Islander games have been fun to watch outside of the last five to eight minutes would be disingenuous. For the most part, they’ve been frustrating to borderline unwatchable outside of a few minutes of zone time in each game. Inconsistencies aside, it’s the massive mistakes that are really doing them in early in the season.

Nearly the entire team is making east-west passes at their own blueline and at the opposing team’s blueline, which are easily picked off and sent the other way. It happened countless times against the Maple Leafs at the Islanders’ blueline throughout the game. They are also forcing passes all over the ice instead of keeping the puck in front of them. We’re used to seeing them make the safe play by dumping it in, and while they have found some offensive success, their passes aren’t very good.

The Maples Leafs forwards are fast, and their ability to quickly transition back into the Islanders’ zone put an exclamation point on this issue. When Toronto shot the puck, the Islanders’ defenders collapsed and missed coverage in front of their net, looking lost in the process.

Even though it was on the penalty kill, I urge you to replay the video above and watch Adam Pelech’s reaction following the goal. His partner, Ryan Pulock, was way out of position, trying to put pressure on the Maple Leafs forward, leaving him alone in front to defend the pass from Mitch Marner and John Tavares. That’s just one example. It’s happened so many times over the last month, especially early in games, and the team has had to play from behind seemingly all November long.

Islanders Treading Water

If not for Ilya Sorokin and gratuitous bounces in their favor, the 12-8-0 Islanders would be in deep trouble at the quarter mark of the 2022-23 season. A flailing Pittsburgh Penguins squad and an injured Washington Capitals team have also helped keep the Islanders afloat, though the New York Rangers are nipping at their heals despite some up and down play themselves.

The Islanders are getting crucial goals from up and down the lineup that are also keeping them in the mix. Even the streaky Anthony Beauvillier got in on the action, helping New York come back – yet again – against the Maple Leafs by scoring a beautiful goal in overtime.

Mathew Barzal also picked up his first two goals of the season over the last week, both against the Dallas Stars in a 5-2 loss. His first was a great tip-in goal as he cruised to the front of the net, an uncharacteristic play for him, but a great play nonetheless. His second is what many expect from him on a regular basis. Using his speed and stickhandling ability, he found a way to skate right down the gut of the Dallas defense and get a clean shot past the goaltender.

But Barzal stepping up above his 22 points in 20 games won’t be enough, especially if teams around them in the standings begin to pick up steam. What’s important to keep in mind, is there isn’t a lot of help that can come from the Bridgeport Islanders. On defense, Robin Salo is available but has been outplayed by Sebastian Aho. On offense, the Islanders opened up some space by waiving Nikita Soshnikov, but there aren’t any Bridgeport standouts that are ready for regular time in the NHL. It gets some wondering about trade scenarios, though we all know to assume nothing until something is done.

The Islanders have three games in four nights around American Thanksgiving, all winnable games, and an opportunity to right some wrongs before the month closes. Can the defense tighten up? Can the forwards start playing a bit more north-south hockey? Their mistakes will surely be exposed against Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers later this week, which will be a good test to see if they’re learning, or if we have a long season ahead of us.

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