The New York Islanders sit in second place in the Metropolitan Division, and third in the Eastern Conference, as of Nov. 16. But that doesn’t really tell the whole story of a team with high internal expectations and wildly inconsistent external expectations of where they’d be at the season’s end. When they’ve played well and worked within their new identity as a resilient, veteran group, the results prove last season was a fluke. On the other hand, when they’ve simply not shown up, like in recent losses to the Detroit Red Wings and Arizona Coyotes, it leaves many shaking their head. Their third-period heroics, and great goaltending, however, have covered up some of those inconsistencies.
Islanders’ Defense Settles In
The saying goes “they’re nothing if not consistent,” and for the Islanders, their consistent inconsistencies and mountain of mistakes continue to be covered up by their goalies, Ilya Sorokin and Semyon Varlamov. For a team known as defensive stalwarts for three out of the last four seasons, it’s a strange shift in how we look at the Islanders as a team. As The Athletic‘s Kevin Kurz pointed out this week, they have allowed the first goal in 11 of 17 games so far this season, boasting a record just below a .500 winning percentage at 5-6-0 (From “Sebastian Aho’s steadier, improving game helps Islanders to another comeback win,” The Athletic, 11/13/2022).
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While it’s no secret the Islanders rely on their goaltending very heavily, something that won’t be sustainable throughout the season at the rate the Islanders are playing, the structure, strategy, and makeup of the defense is what’s changed since head coach Lane Lambert took over this season. Sebastian Aho, who has solidified himself as the team’s sixth defenseman next to Scott Mayfield, and Alexander Romanov helped the back end get younger and seem to be helping the puck get moved up the ice quicker, even if many times it’s in a high-risk, high-reward situation. For Aho, he’s finding the balance between pushing the pace and making the right play.
The Islanders’ overall defense, buoyed by said goaltending, has managed to be pretty good, at least on paper. Currently, they sit seventh overall in the NHL in goals against, having allowed 43 so far this season. Still, even as they settle in and in the meantime their goalies help them out, the Islanders’ defensive lapses and botched breakout passes are opening the door for the team’s third-period heroics early this season.
Islanders’ Third-Period Heroics
As of Nov. 15, the Islanders have outscored their opponents 28-15 in the third period, including six empty netters. Those 28 goals lead the league, and much like the team’s reliance on its goaltending, the Islanders can’t rest on their resilience forever. While it’s a great trait to have, especially in the playoffs, they need to find a way to play with the same sense of urgency at the start of the game as they do when the puck drops for the third period and they’re playing from behind.
For now, the Islanders’ overall depth on offense, and the defense finding the back of the net, is what’s carrying the team. Last season, the Islanders scored 32 goals from defensemen, with Noah Dobson far and away the leader with 13. This season, they’ve scored nearly half that amount – 13 – in just 17 games. Dobson already has five this season, on pace to pass 13 by mid-season if all goes well.
On offense, players up and down the lineup are finding a way to score goals, which is how this roster was constructed by general manager Lou Lamoriello, and much to the chagrin of fans still crossing their fingers for a star winger. No one, save for Mathew Barzal, who hasn’t scored a goal yet despite 18 assists so far, is a star, and that’s ok. Some nights, Kyle Palmieri steps up for a goal or two. On other nights, it’s Zach Parise, Josh Bailey, Oliver Wahlstrom, or, like last night against the Ottawa Senators, J.G. Pageau. Even Matt Martin, known more for serving up hits than goals, has a couple on the season already.
More consistently, it’s been Brock Nelson and Anders Lee, who have nine and eight goals respectively so far this season. But regardless of who’s scoring the goals, the Islanders are finding a way to win games late, no matter the opponent. As Zach Parise recently said, the Islanders are a team-first group. “Not only the parity, but everything now is becoming so individualized, and kind of ‘me me me’ oriented,” Parise said. “The way that this group has been able to put the team first, it’s really fun to be a part of” (From “Islanders’ Zach Parise ‘embracing everything’ and thriving in a depth role,” The Athletic, 11/14/2022).
Islanders’ Barzal Moving the Needle
Even without any goals so far this season, Barzal is still moving the needle offensively for the Islanders. This isn’t to say his play hasn’t been frustrating, because it certainly has. There has been plenty of times where he made passes, or really bad passes at that, on odd-man rushes that could have been shots. Putting that aside, he’s living up to his moniker as a playmaker, racking up 18 assists in the team’s first 17 games.
Barzal is accomplishing this with a so-so power play and a continuing carousel of linemates, which included the recently waived Nikita Soshnikov. The issue of finding Barzal linemates with similar star power aside, just having some consistency for the Islanders’ star forward would be nice. It’s difficult to find chemistry as it is, and it doesn’t help that players aren’t getting a long enough look next to a player that it likely takes a little bit to figure out how to play with. The shifty center thinks the game quickly, and if you’re not ready, what was originally a sneaky good pass turns into a rush the other way.
The Islanders finish the month of November with five of seven games on the road. They’ve recently found some success off Long Island, and they’ll need to dig deep against some good teams to keep that trending in the right direction. And while the comebacks and third-period heroics are exciting, it’s not a sustainable model for success. The Islanders will need to start games on time and come out of the gate with the same sense of urgency as they have when they come out for third periods.
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.