During this past weekend, the New York Islanders played two key games against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Widely regarded by fans and analysts as a true measuring stick of the potential of the 2014-2015 Islanders, the Isles certainly didn’t disappoint their fans by sweeping a home and home series with their Metropolitan Division rivals.
Deviating from their past struggles during the month of November, the Islanders have only lost two of the ten November games that they have played thus far. While Isles fans were probably anxious to skip the month of November as it was approaching, New York’s play over the last few weeks has shown that the Islanders are intent on reversing the trends that hindered their post-season hopes in years past.
As previously mentioned, winning a home and home series with a potent division rival such as the Penguins was definitely a feat that Islanders fans appreciated, but how did they get it done?
Well, there are certainly more than a few reasons, but the three most important ones have seemingly been driving the Isles for the duration of this month – and it surely doesn’t look like they’re ready to take their foot off of the pedal either.
Over the last few years, the Islanders have shown flashes of resilience in their play, but have been unable to harness and sustain it on a consistent enough level.
In today’s NHL, a team’s ability to come back from adversity when the odds are stacked against them has separated the average teams from the elite teams. Just looking at the Los Angeles Kings’ past two Stanley Cup championship runs, one could see the role that resilience played in the Kings winning Lord Stanley’s Cup on both occasions.
While the Islanders demonstrated that they could be a resilient squad during their ’12-’13 Stanley Cup playoff match-up against the Pittsburgh Penguins, they weren’t able to maintain that kind of attitude on a nightly basis. However, these last three games have put that resiliency on display for the whole NHL to see firsthand.
Starting with the Isles’ 5-2 payback victory against the Tampa Bay Lightning, New York demonstrated just how different their mentality is this season from that of prior campaigns. While the Islanders had a number of good offensive chances that they could not convert in the first period – especially on a 5-on-3 man-advantage – they didn’t let an Alex Killorn goal crush their spirits.
Outshooting the Lightning in the first period, the Islanders stuck to their game-plan and kept peppering Evgeni Nabokov throughout the duration of their contest. Scoring three goals in the middle frame, the Isles simply never looked back on the missed opportunities in the first period as they essentially cruised to a win against a team that had beaten them by the same 5-2 score just a few nights before.
Despite the fact that the Islanders were able to exact some revenge on the Lightning in the second half of their home and home series, the team’s real resiliency was evidenced in Pittsburgh on Friday night. With Brandon Sutter scoring just 1:13 into the game on the Penguins’ first shot on goal, it would have been easy for the Islanders to simply curl up into a ball and chalk the game up as a lost cause.
In previous seasons, when the opposition scored on the Islanders on their first shot on goal, it felt as though the wind would be completely knocked out of New York’s sails for the rest of the game. On Friday night though, that just wasn’t the case.
Calming down after Pittsburgh’s initial score, the Islanders engaged the Pens in a offensive showdown. Although the Penguins eventually found a way to tie the game in the third period, New York did not change up their mentality and did not let themselves fold under pressure. Instead, the Islanders rose up to the occasion and let their play on the ice dictate the outcome of the game in the shootout.
Of course, it’s easy to nitpick at some negatives in each of the past three games that the Islanders have played, but that would be ignoring a key element of what has been making this team so successful as of late. No longer are the Islanders letting teams set, and keep, the pace of play for a given contest. Rather than allowing the opposition to control the game, the Isles’ resiliency has been helping them stick to their game-plan – something that has been largely contributing to their ability to stay competitive in games that they would have all but lost in years past.
When the ’14-’15 NHL season started, the New York Islanders were not too impressive on the penalty kill. Add in the fact that New York’s powerplay wasn’t performing up to par and one had a recipe for disaster as the Isles’ special teams were preventing them from either winning games or staying competitive in tight contests.
However, over the past three games – and before that as well – the Isles’ powerplay and penalty kill has been top notch. Playing against the Lightning last Tuesday night, the Islanders put their special teams to the test, and the results were extremely positive.
Not only did Brock Nelson score his ninth goal of the season on the man-advantage, Cal Clutterbuck added his first of the season – and equalizing goal in the beginning seconds of the second period – while New York was shorthanded. Despite the fact that the Lightning had three powerplay opportunities, the Islanders did not let them convert a single one, which is quite an accomplishment given the fact that Tampa Bay has a top-10 powerplay unit in the league.
Propelling the Islanders to a victory against the Lightning, New York’s special teams units kept up their hard-nosed play in the second game of the Isles’ home and home against the Penguins. Although there was only one penalty assessed in the Islanders’ 5-4 Friday night win against the Penguins at the CONSOL Energy Center, New York managed to convert one of their two powerplay opportunities against Pittsburgh on Saturday night – a Brock Nelson tally that essentially padded the Isles’ lead in a close game that was halfway through the third period.
Killing off the Penguins’ only powerplay on Saturday night, it is plain to see that the Islanders have not only been playing disciplined hockey, but have been rising to the occasion when their lack of discipline has resulted in another team being on the man-advantage. For a team that was struggling with its special teams early on in the season, the Islanders sure have adjusted their power-play and penalty killing units to become their strength rather than their weakness.
The Pipeline Products
What else can be said about the play of Anders Lee, Brock Nelson, and Ryan Strome?
Aside from being key contributors to the Isles’ offense over this last stretch of games, all of the aforementioned forwards have been blossoming before the eyes of Islanders fans. Last season, Brock Nelson demonstrated that he was a versatile forward that could be inserted almost anywhere in the lineup and be expected to produce in one way or another – be it on the offensive or defensive side of the puck.
Similarly, fans were able to see what kind of a game Anders Lee brought to the table toward the tail-end of last season. Lee’s ability to play a physical and grinding style of hockey greatly appealed to Islanders fans and his ability to shoot the puck or dish it to an open teammate only further endeared him to fans in Islanders Country.
On the other hand, Ryan Strome’s inconsistent play made him somewhat of a question mark heading into the ’14-’15 NHL season as his mixed bag of results left many wondering whether or not the young forward needed some more seasoning in the AHL.
Although each of the three previously mentioned forwards all had different results last season, they have been firing on all cylinders lately. In particular, Ryan Strome has been a catalyst for the Islanders as his four points (2G, 2A) in the last three games have helped the Isles immensely – especially against top tier competition such as Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh.
While Strome scored what would be the game-deciding goal against the Lightning, Brock Nelson hasn’t been too far behind. Receiving time on New York’s powerplay unit with John Tavares and company, Nelson has potted two powerplay goals in the past three games. Of course, playing alongside John Tavares and Kyle Okposo will likely increase any forward’s offensive totals, but hockey fans must also consider the fact that Nelson has had to work extremely hard to earn such a privilege. With Nelson shooting the puck at least seven or eight times a game, it isn’t surprising to see his name pop up on the score sheet so often – after all, when you shoot the puck that much you’re bound to score at some point.
Lastly, Anders Lee has been sticking to the type of game that made him popular amongst Isles fans last season. Mixing in a few hits, some blocked shots, and some goals and assists, Lee has been patient with his offensive game this season, and the results have definitely been showing up over the last few games.
Lee scored what would be the game-deciding goal against the Penguins on Saturday night and added a helper the night before in Pittsburgh. Even though Lee’s four points (3G, 1A) in 14 games played has put him way off pace to replicate his totals from last season (22 GP, 9G, 5A), the forward plays a team-first kind of game, and if his offense has to be shelved for the betterment of the team, then that is what Lee will wind up doing.
Of course, it’s definitely worth mentioning that Lee did not start the season with the Islanders and therefore needs some time to adjust to an NHL lineup after being called up, but the fact of the matter is that Lee – much like Nelson and other Islanders’ youngsters – already plays with a mentality that goes far beyond that of a regular 24-year old.
The value of Lee, Strome, and Nelson to the Islanders simply cannot be understated. Sure, the Islanders had to go through some tough times while diligently developing these prospects, but the fruits of labor are finally starting to pay off for New York, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.
Keys To Continued Success
While the Islanders still have a lot of games left to play this season, they have shown – even if it has taken multiple years – that they are dedicated to their on-ice product.
Earlier this season, the Islanders endured a three-game losing streak that made fans feel less optimistic about the team’s good start. Jack Capuano once again became the target of a disgruntled fan-base and clamor regarding a trade also made its way through various fan circles.
Despite the uncertainty, the Islanders managed to keep calm and return to the brand of hockey that had made them successful during the early portion of the season. Sure, Capuano is usually the target of a massive amount of vitriol from Islanders fans following any type of losing streak, but the fact of the matter is that the Islanders’ organization has stuck behind their head coach – and it has had some overwhelming results.
Fans must remember that Capuano has history with a good amount of the prospects that are either playing with the Islanders now or will be playing with the team in the future. Not only has Capuano received the organization’s vote of confidence on a number of occasions, but that same treatment has been afforded to Islanders prospects that have experienced the ups and downs that come with playing in the NHL.
It might seem too cliche, but patience has truly been a virtue with the Islanders over the past several years. Of course, the road to success – and continued success – might not always be an easy one, but it is one that must be exercised thoroughly, no matter how discouraging or inconsistent the initial results may be.
In his third year with The Hockey Writers, Toli covers all things related to the New York Islanders. Focusing on the Islanders, the NHL Draft & draft-eligible prospect goalies, and hockey history, Toli can be contacted on Facebook by searching/messaging Toli Metter and on twitter by searching @ToliMetterTHW.