The New York Islanders allowed four goals in the first two periods in a 4-1 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers at the Nassau Coliseum on Sunday. Not only was this defeat their fifth in seven games, but it also knocked them out of first place in the Metropolitan Division, a position they’d held since Jan. 18.
The Islanders were one of the league’s hottest teams heading into the All-Star Break, with a 15-3-1 record over their previous 19 games. Led by new head coach Barry Trotz, one of the NHL’s best goalie tandems in Robin Lehner and Thomas Griess and young studs such as Mathew Barzal, Anthony Beauvillier, Devon Toews and Ryan Pulock, the Isles were atop the Metropolitan Division as recently as March 2.
While many will point out their early success was unsustainable, New York was the league’s feel-good story. This Cinderella season came at the perfect time for a snake-bitten fanbase that saw its franchise player, John Tavares, leave the team for his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs in July.
Since returning from their bye week, aside from Thursday night’s 6-1 drubbing of the Leafs in Tavares’ return to Long Island, the Islanders have seen many more lows than highs. They’ve dropped winnable games in regulation to mediocre teams such as the Flyers and the Buffalo Sabres, lost a pair of key fourth-liners to injuries and allowed three unanswered goals in the third period in a 3-1 loss to their division-rival Washington Capitals. The Isles are just 8-6-2 since returning from the All-Star Break and look nothing like the contender they seemed to be back in January.
This begs the question: What’s changed?
Islanders’ Struggling Power Play
First and foremost, the power play has been far from the Isles’ strength for the majority of the season. Prior to the All-Star Break, of the 31 teams, their power play was among the league’s worst, converting on just 16.7 percent of their opportunities. Since the break, the power play has been abysmal, ranking 27th overall with a power play percentage of just 14 percent.
The Isles’ power play unit experienced a brief period of improvement thanks to a hot stretch by Ryan Pulock during the 10 games they played between Feb. 2 and 21. During those contests, he had five power-play points, accounting for 83 percent of the team’s goals over that span, in which the Islanders converted on 20.7 percent of their power plays, good enough for league average if it was projected across the entire season.
Since their Feb. 23 win against the Vancouver Canucks, however, Trotz’s squad has not converted on a single power play in any of their last 10 opportunities.
The Third Line
The Islanders’ third line, made up of winger Leo Komarov and center Valtteri Filppula, has created an offensive black hole for the team. The defensive-minded Filppula and Komarov have combined for just 46 points over the team’s 65 games. Komarov has contributed even less of late. Over the club’s last seven games, he has scored just one point, an assist to Filppula early in the second period of Thursday’s Toronto win. Komarov has also registered a plus/minus of zero during that spell.
While defense is their strength, the Islanders have some talent on offense. Players like Barzal, Beauvillier, Jordan Eberle, Anders Lee and Josh Bailey have all proven they can produce. Additionally, the Islanders boast one of the best fourth lines in the league this season.
Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck: Bash(ed) Brothers
On July 3, 2018, the Islanders reacquired forward and enforcer Matt Martin. Martin, who spent the first seven seasons of his career with the organization before leaving for Toronto after the 2015-16 season, has been a fan favorite and a productive member of the fourth line.
When paired with fellow fourth-line winger Cal Clutterbuck, they form a duo that fans affectionately call the “Bash Brothers,” a homage to the staggering amount of hits they rack up. This season, Martin and Clutterbuck rank fifth and 26th, respectively, in that category league-wide.
While he doesn’t add much offensively, Martin is a valuable member of the fourth line. His role is to intimidate and lay out opposing players in order to help his team secure the puck. His impact is evident in his plus-nine. Clutterbuck, while he can be classified as a “goon,” helps a lot more than Martin on the offensive side of the puck. His 20 points are good for the 10th on the team and he’s a plus-eight. Aside from center Casey Cizikas, these are the two most valuable players on the fourth line.
The Islanders have lost both Martin and Clutterbuck to injuries since the start of Thursday’s game against the Leafs. Martin left that game with an upper-body injury and during Sunday’s loss to the Flyers, Clutterbuck sustained one as well. Both players are listed as day-to-day; all the Isles can do from here is pray that neither misses extended time.
Is It Time to Start Panicking?
No. Assuming Clutterbuck and Martin don’t miss much time, the Islanders should be back at full strength pretty soon. While the third line and power play have been an issue, it’s important to note their competition during this rough patch. Just one of their last nine games was against a team that isn’t fighting for a playoff spot.
The schedule gets easier this week with back to back matches against the last-place Ottawa Senators. Fresh off of firing their head coach and trading their best player, the Sens look primed to lock down the best odds in the upcoming draft lottery. If the Isles fail to get four points in those games, then I’d say it’s time to hit the panic button.