Islanders continue to be a surprise

When John Tavares chose the hometown Maple Leafs, whose pajamas he wore as a kid, the Islanders were supposed to be not too good. Even in the new era of Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz, they were not expected to challenge for the playoffs.

It maybe early. We are still before the Christmas break. The Islanders have played 32 games so far. Like many teams in the Metro Division, they have had ups and downs. But after putting together one of their more impressive games to defeat the Avalanche 4-1 in Colorado on Monday night, you have to say they belong in the playoff conversation.

In the first of a four-game road swing that stops at Arizona later tonight with Vegas and Dallas still to come, they controlled play against one of the West’s best in enemy territory. The Avalanche boast the best line in the game. Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog are a dynamic trio that are very difficult to contain. Rantanen leads the league with 56 points. MacKinnon ranks second with 53, and Landeskog’s 22 goals are fourth best. The Isles held them in check at five-on-five. Only a Landeskog redirect for a power play goal that MacKinnon helped set up, prevented Thomas Greiss from getting a shutout.

The Isles played well following Saturday’s shootout win over the pesky Red Wings at Nassau Coliseum. They might not have generated a ton of shots on Avalanche starter Semyon Varlamov, but were opportunistic. A power play that’s struggled much of this year without Tavares went two-for-four last night. They converted twice in the second period on goals from Johnny Boychuk (first of season) and captain Anders Lee (12th).

Lee’s power play goal was important because it came in direct response to a dirty kneeing minor on Colorado defenseman Ian Cole that injured Brock Nelson. It also came late in the period, restoring a two-goal lead versus a tough opponent. Colorado can score with the best of them. They are capable of exploding at home in the third like they did in a comeback win over the Stars this past weekend. So, Lee’s goal definitely was a big one. It was also his first in five games. A streaky scorer, maybe he gets hot. He’s been a good replacement as captain for Tavares. The kind of gritty player, who leads by example. Fittingly, his goal came on a deflection of a Nick Leddy shot. That’s who he is.

Trotz’ club isn’t gonna blow you away in the scoring department. Their 93 goals in 32 games are a 2.84 GF per night. That ranks in the bottom third. Their goals-against-average is 2.78. So, there’s not much margin for error. They boast one unique talent in sophomore Mathew Barzal. Year Two has been a struggle for the playmaking pivot. There haven’t been many nights such as Saturday when he was the best player, tallying a goal, assist along with the shootout winner. He leads them in assists (23) and points (27). However, he’s still a minus-nine. That’s second worst to Jordan Eberle, who got just his seventh yesterday. There’s room for improvement.

The best Islander has been Josh Bailey. His production is still there without Tavares. He’s 7-19-26 with a plus-10 rating. A good skater who is superb at finding open teammates, the former first round pick plays in all situations. Of his seven goals, two have come on the power play and one shorthanded. He’s just a good player who’s solid all around. The 26 points rank second behind Barzal. Lee is third with 25 followed by Nelson (21). Hopefully, his injury isn’t too serious. Valtteri Filppula would move up. He’s been a nice addition adding eight markers including a empty netter on Monday. Filppula has 17 points, ranking fifth.

A key part of their success is the supporting cast. That includes streaky third-year man Anthony Beauvillier (10 goals) along with the fourth line of Casey Cizikas, Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck. The cohesive trio are still getting it done. Though Clutterbuck isn’t the same player he was a couple of years ago. Cizikas remains a reliable two-way player under Trotz as his eight goals, dozen points, shorthanded goal and plus-eight attest. He got over 16 minutes in the win over Colorado.

Greiss had a good night finishing with 30 saves. He’s bounced back with a good year so far. He improved to 12-6-1 with a 2.50 GAA and .919 save percentage in 21 games. More like the dependable goalie he was a couple of years ago as 1B to former starter Jaro Halak. In the second of a back-to-back, it remains to be seen if Trotz will go back to him. Robin Lehner is likely to get the nod. He’s only got four wins with a 2.66 GAA and .912 save percentage in 14 appearances. However, he was a hard luck loser in his last three starts. He hasn’t gotten in the win column since Oct. 30 versus Pittsburgh. So, he’s overdue.

The defense isn’t great. Scott Mayfield leads the team from the blueline in points (13) and penalty minutes (26) with a solid plus-seven rating. Ryan Pulock has been solid with his two helpers giving him 10 for the season with a pair of goals. Pulock boasts a big shot from the point. Only two have gone in on 70 shots. At some point, that’ll change. He’s got a accurate one-timer that can do damage a man up. Boychuk finally got one to go on the man-advantage last night. The good news is he hasn’t missed a game.

Nick Leddy no longer is putting up points. Maybe he’s playing safer under Trotz following last year’s nightmare. A goal and eight assists is passable for the veteran as long as he’s not taking too many chances. Adam Pelech quietly leads all Isles defensemen with a plus-nine in 29 games. Thomas Hickey continues to be reliable.

When they enter play against the Coyotes, the Islanders will bring a respectable 16-12-4 record in which is good for third place in the division. They have an identical amount of points ROW (14) and points (36) to the Penguins, who lost to the Ducks 4-2. But Pittsburgh has played one more game.

The Isles are very much looking like a team who’ll compete for the postseason. Especially in a mediocre division. Even the Pens and Blue Jackets haven’t hit their stride. Meanwhile, the Hurricanes are hit or miss due to inconsistency in net and a not so great D even with the additions of Dougie Hamilton and former Islander Calvin de Haan. The Rangers are not ready to compete and will be sellers at the deadline. Unless the Devils or Flyers, who fired Dave Hakstol, get their act together, the Isles look like they’ll be vying for at least a wildcard with the surprising Canadiens.

The Atlantic is much stronger. The Lightning are by far the most balanced in the East. The Maple Leafs are going to continue to score a pile of goals. I wonder if Frederik Andersen will keep it up. The Sabres just passed them in the standings due to MVP caliber play by emerging star Jack Eichel. They’ve gotten surprisingly steady goaltending from the combination of Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark. Jeff Skinner is second in the NHL with 24 goals, forming a lethal 1-2 punch with Eichel. Rasmus Dahlin is as good as advertised. Buffalo is a year ahead of schedule.

What the Isles lack in talent they make up for in battle level under the demanding Trotz, who’s instilled a harder work ethic. Losing is no longer tolerated. A welcome sight for their loyal fans.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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