A quick glimpse of the standings and you’ll probably do a double take. Maybe even a triple take.
1.New York Islanders 47 GP 28-15-4 60 Pts 26 ROW
2.Columbus Blue Jackets 47 GP 28-16-3 59 Pts 28 ROW
3.Washington Capitals 47 GP 27-15-5 59 Pts 24 ROW
4.Pittsburgh Penguins 47 GP 26-15-6 58 Pts 25 ROW
We’ll make the second wildcard Pens the cutoff. There’s no reason to include the pretenders. None of the remaining four teams are playoff caliber. You have your top half all jockeying for position in the second half with the All-Star break approaching.
Entering tonight, all four Metro contenders have played 47 games. The Blue Jackets will play number 48 later at Minnesota, and the Penguins visit old friend Marc-Andre Fleury and the Golden Knights for their 48th game. So, things could change again depending on the results. With any type of win, Columbus can vault over the NHL’s biggest surprise. The first place New York Islanders.
At this point of the season, the much improved Islanders under the guidance of Jack Adams candidate Barry Trotz have won 14 of their last 17 to lead the division with 60 points. Since suffering a tough luck 2-1 home loss last weekend to the rival Rangers, they responded impressively with four consecutive wins. That included a statement 5-1 home victory over first overall Tampa the following night. After a lucky 2-1 overtime triumph over the Blues, they easily defeated the Devils 4-1 prior to Trotz’ return to Washington on Friday night.
For the veteran coach who led the Capitals to their first ever Stanley Cup last Spring, it was a emotional return against the team he formed a bond with that will last forever. That’s why it was fitting on the night they honored proud veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik for playing his 1,000th career game. Trotz was back in DC with his new team with two home arenas playing its best hockey. There was a wonderful tribute to the proud coach and his assistants during a stoppage. There was a well deserved loud reception and stick taps from his former players including Conn Smythe winner Alexander Ovechkin. At first, you could see how much it meant with an emotional Trotz tearing up. But he eventually smiled and said something to his players on the Isles bench before waving to the crowd. It was nice to see.
Maybe his new team knew how much this game meant. They came out and controlled it in entirety. With Trotz changing his mind on giving starter Robin Lehner back-to-back starts, instead going to backup Thomas Greiss, the Isles played with urgency throughout. From the NHL’s worst defensive team a year ago to the league’s best, they took time and space away from a talented roster that right now is out of sync. They were frustrated by a diligent checking and stingy group that’s doing this despite losing John Tavares to the Maple Leafs.
Astonishingly, the Islanders have the identical amount of points (60) at this stage as the high scoring Leafs, who fell to lowly Florida yesterday. Tavares has played very well leading his new team with 29 goals and five game-winners. His 52 points rank second on Toronto behind super soph Mitch Marner (60).
If you contrast that with Mathew Barzal pacing the Islanders in scoring with 44 points and 31 assists, it’s totally different. The Isles defend better. They also won the first meeting by going up to Toronto and shutting out the Leafs 4-0. A game highlighted by Barzal’s hat trick and assist for four points on Dec. 29. Dating back to a tough 3-2 loss at Vegas on 12/12 that made them 1-3-1 over a difficult stretch, they’re 14-3-0 since.
Including last night’s 2-0 shutout on third period goals from Josh Bailey and Cal Clutterbuck, they’ve won 11 of the 17 previous games in regulation. Only three have gone into extras with a shootout win over Detroit, along with overtime wins over Chicago and St. Louis.
They do it with strong goaltending from Lehner and Greiss, who hasn’t played that much due to how well the former Sabre has done. Not bad considering new architect Lou Lamoriello signed him to a one-year deal for a bargain basement price of $1.5 million. After addressing some key off ice issues that were having a negative affect on him, Lehner has rewarded the Isles with a 14-7-3 record, 2.11 GAA, .928 save percentage and two shutouts in 25 contests including 23 starts. Tremendous stuff from a unproven netminder who had been inconsistent and injury prone throughout his career. Greiss has 14 victories with a 2.50 GAA, .920 save percentage and two shutouts. Combined, that’s 28 wins for the pair with four shutouts along with a league best 2.47 GAA. That counts Christopher Gibson, who got into one game.
It’s a huge turnaround. The Islanders still give up over 30 shots a game. However, it was higher earlier in the season. They’re now ranked 20th, which is a dramatic improvement. So much of it due to the very organized system Trotz has got them to buy into. When you hear players talk before and after games, they mention how confident they are that they’ll win. That was never the case under the old regime that included Garth Snow and former interim coach Doug Weight.
Having one of the game’s best coaches along with a legendary GM counts for something. Especially when it comes to changing the culture. They believe in each other.
The offense is by committee. It isn’t only the top six that includes Barzal, gritty captain Anders Lee (18 goals), Bailey (36 points) and the improved Brock Nelson (16-15-31). But also about the best fourth line in name only that saw Lamoriello wisely reacquire popular grinder Matt Martin from Toronto- reuniting him with Casey Cizikas (11 goals, +14) and Clutterbuck. Or the overlooked Valtteri Filppula, who’s contributed 10 goals with three game deciders. Leo Komarov, who brings consistent energy to his shifts as well.
But how about the no name defense that still features vets Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk? Last year was a nightmare for Leddy, who finished a nightmarish minus-42 rating despite having 42 points. A year later, he’s 1-16-17 with a plus-one.
Nobody on the blueline scores a lot. However, with emerging youngsters such as Ryan Pulock, Scott Mayfield and Devon Toews, there’s a reason for Islander fans to get excited. These aren’t the same Islanders, who rolled over and teased their loyal fan base.
Indeed, the fans can finally be proud and loud, especially at Nassau Coliseum. They’re a first place team not by accident. Rather by hard work. Lamoriello and Trotz have successfully remade New York’s other team. The only local that is competitive and has a shot to do something in the playoffs. They still must get there. A welcome change.