HARD HITS: How good are the Islanders?


Mat Barzal celebrates a goal in another Islanders win. They’re off to a hot start in Year Two under Barry Trotz. How good are they? AP Photo by Jim McIsaac via Getty Images

It’s Year Two for the Islanders under superb coach Barry Trotz. After surprising many by finishing second in the Metro Division and sweeping the proven Penguins in the first round last season, they’re off to a great start.

Counting Saturday’s 2-1 home win over the Panthers, that’s 11 wins in their last 12 games (11-0-1). Over that span, it included a 10-game win streak that saw the very disciplined and detail oriented Islanders outscore opponents 34-17. In eight victories, they scored at least three goals or more. The only two they didn’t were a 3-2 shootout win and a 1-0 shutout. Nine of the 10 wins saw them allow two goals or fewer.

Even in blowing a three-goal lead in the third period of a disappointing 4-3 overtime loss to the Pens on Thursday, the Isles haven’t lost a game in regulation since Oct. 11 to the Hurricanes by a count of 5-2. By rebounding to another one goal triumph yesterday on goals from Mat Barzal and Scott Mayfield, they showed their resiliency.

All one has to do is take a look at the standings. The Capitals are first in the division and Eastern Conference with 29 points in 18 games. They’re 13-2-3 and look like they’ll be tough to beat. However, so are the Islanders. They’ve played two less games (16). So with a 12-3-1 record, they have 25 points to keep pace with those Caps. The 25 rank second in the East. One ahead of Atlantic Division leader Boston. By comparison, the John Tavares Maple Leafs have 22 in two more games played.

Go look at the Isles goal differential and how many they allow. While the Leafs are just plus-three (60 GF, 57 GA), the Islanders are plus-14 (49 GF, 35 GA) to rank third with the Pens behind the Caps (+19) and Bruins (+18). Similar to last year, the Islanders are tops in goals against per game with a 2.19 average allowed. They’ve permitted a league low 23 goals at five-on-five.

The interesting aspect is Trotz’s club can get better on special teams. They rank seventh in penalty killing at 85.1 percent while scoring three shorthanded goals. The power play is a different story. The Isles rank 19th overall clicking at 17.9 percent (5-for-28). That includes a dreadful 1-for-18 (5.6 percent) at home. Even though they haven’t played much on the road, they’re 4-for-10 for 40.0 percent in five matches away. That might help explain their 4-1-0 road record.

For the most part, the Islanders have fared well despite having two home rinks. Even with them playing more games so far at NYCB Live Nassau Coliseum, they’re a combined 8-2-1 in the 11 home games played. All they do is win no matter what. Drake would be proud. We kid.

The question is how good are the Islanders. Well, when you look at the play in front of goalie tandem Thomas Greiss and Semyon Varlamov, they’re getting the job done. In his ninth game (eighth start), Greiss made 37 saves while allowing only one goal to Aleksander Barkov. He’s won his last six decisions while permitting just 10 goals on 192 shots (.948 save percentage). That translates to a 1.67 goals-against-average (GAA).

Varlamov has been almost as good. He was a controversial signing by GM Lou Lamoriello due to replacing popular goalie Robin Lehner, who’s been putting up similar numbers on a worse Blackhawks team. They justified the move due to wanting to have the veteran Russian around to tutor top goalie prospect Ilya Sorokin. A third round draft pick in the 2014 NHL Draft taken number 78, he continues to excel for CSKA Moscow in the KHL. The 24-year old Sorokin has posted four shutouts and a 10-3-2 record, 1.24 GAA and .948 save percentage this season.

Prior to allowing four goals to the Pens in the third period and overtime, Varlamov had won five straight starts. That included a 27 save shutout over Buffalo on Nov. 2. Overall, he’s 5-2-1 with a 2.37 GAA and .928 save percentage. Solid numbers for the 31-year old veteran.

Even though they give up a lot of shots against per game (32.1) to rank 13th overall, neither goalie is complaining. That’s largely due to the Trotz system. If last year felt like a crash course in adjusting to go from the worst defensive team to the league’s best, then this time around the Isles are a well oiled machine. They’re so disciplined in how they play by limiting opponents’ chances to the outside. When they do give up a quality one, both Greiss and Varlamov are there more often than not to shut it down.

The neutral zone is like a maze for opponents to get through. They make it hard by clogging up the middle and taking away areas to skate into open space while being diligent defensively. You’re not getting too many free passes or easy access into the Isles zone. That’s a credit to how tough they are under Trotz. It’s not much different from how the old style 90’s Devils teams played under Jacques Lemaire. While it can be sleep inducing for foes, it’s very effective.

Let’s put it this way. Leading scorer Barzal ranks 56th among NHL skaters with 14 points (7-7-14). He’s the only New York Islander in the top 85. Josh Bailey is 86th with a dozen points (6-6-12). However, if you can hold opponents down the way they have, you don’t need to score as many goals to be successful. Note also that Barzal is picking up key goals and assists while being responsible defensively. He’s a plus-12.

When your best player is buying in, that bodes well. The great thing about the Isles is everyone gets a chance to be a hero. Even Cole Bardreau, who scored on a penalty shot in a recent win. He just got sent back down to Bridgeport, but that one goal will always be a special moment. That in a nutshell is this team. Jordan Eberle just returned yesterday and his one highlight was playing goalie for Greiss by making a diving save to prevent a goal. Not known for his defense, it was no problem for Eberle.

Since they’re so good at even strength, most of the roster is full of pluses. Only Bardreau (-1), Tom Kuhnackl (-1) and rookie Oliver Wahlstrom (-2) have minuses. Even Derick Brassard has been revitalized. Playing under Trotz, the former Ranger playoff hero has five goals and three assists. That included a recent five-game goal streak in which he went 5-1-6 and plus-six. Seven of his eight points have come since Oct. 24. Maybe there’s still hope for Big Game Brass, who was signed as a replacement for Valtteri Filppula.

You know what you’re going to get from vets Brock Nelson, Anders Lee, Anthony Beauvillier, Casey Cizikas, Cal Clutterbuck and Matt Martin, who remains out with an injury. However, it’s the continued evolvement of the defense led by sophomore Devon Toews (2-8-10) that’s making a difference. Adam Pelech and Mayfield continue to improve along with shutdown right defenseman Ryan Pulock. Vets Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy remain dependable while Trotz works in first round pick Noah Dobson. His development is a key moving forward.

So, can a good team with solid structure go deep in the playoffs? It’s hard to say. They don’t win with skill, but rather with will. There’s a lot of grit and determination to these Islanders. They’re the sum of its parts. Once, former Ranger coach Colin Campbell called the Devils a flock of interchangable parts. Or something to that effect. It was viewed as disrespectful. The funny part is it wasn’t. He was praising how well each player fit into their roles. It’s similar with the Trotz Isles.

I’m not ready to make any crazy prognostications. I didn’t even have them in the playoffs again. Let’s also remember that we haven’t reached the quarter mark yet. As good as they are right now, it’s too early to say for sure where they’ll be in a few months.

I still believe you need a bit more skill to be successful in the postseason. No disrespect to what they’ve accomplished. If they are indeed in the playoffs again, Lamoriello should do everything in his power to make a big trade that can ultimately make a difference. It’s very hard to sustain this level by outworking opponents when the competition picks up. That can work in the regular season.

I’m not sold on three rounds of the playoffs just to reach the Stanley Cup Final. The John Tortorella ’11-12 Rangers squeezed every ounce and they had considerably more talent before losing to the Devils in the Eastern Conference Final.

BODY CHECKS:

How much longer until the Devils pull the plug on coach John Hynes? They take two steps forward with good road wins in Carolina and Winnipeg. Then lose by a combined score of 9-2 to the Flames and Oilers in a failed tour of Alberta. What if they lose the final game of the Western Canadian swing in Vancouver later today?

Cory Schneider looks done. It’s a real shame. But the injuries have reduced him to a backup role behind second-year goalie Mackenzie Blackwood. Schneider’s lateral movement isn’t as good side to side which explains why he allows questionable goals. He’s a good team guy who’s always at his locker win or lose. It’s gotta be tough.

If you’re building a franchise, choose one player not named Connor McDavid.

A. Leon Draisaitl

B. Nathan MacKinnon

C. David Pastrnak

D. Elias Petterson

I only included Petterson because he’s proving already that his Calder season wasn’t a fluke. He’s over a point-per-game and is the focal point of an improved Canucks that also features captain Bo Horvat, Brock Boeser, Quinn Hughes and goalie tandem Jacob Markstrom and Thatcher Demko.

JT Miller seems to be fitting into Travis Green’s system so eight goals and 10 helpers with three power play goals by being the net front presence. Why didn’t he have that role in Tampa?

As great as Pastrnak is with his league-leading 15 goals, nine power play goals and 30 points which ties with Draisaitl for first in the scoring race, sidekick Brad Marchand remains a must watch player on that dominant top line with Patrice Bergeron in Boston. So low to gravity is the Rat that he’s nearly impossible to check and is the straw that stirs the drink. As his 10 markers, 18 helpers, 28 points, three game-winners with 35 penalty minutes prove, he’s a royal pain in the ass. And one of the game’s best players.

When I wrote a post devoted to Marchand for Hart a couple of years ago, I wasn’t kidding. Too bad he’ll never be popular enough with writers who despise his antics yet have no problem with rating MVP Nikita Kucherov continuing to deliver controversial hits like the low bridge he had that injured Sabres forward Vladimir Sobotka in Sweden. Hypocrisy, much?

If you haven’t already, do yourselves a favor and see The Russian Five movie that recently aired on NBCSN following Wednesday Night Hockey between the Rangers and Red Wings. What an emotional and uplifting tale it is of Russians Igor Larionov, Slava Fetisov, Sergei Fedorov, Vyacheslav Kozlov and Vladimir Konstantinov, whose injury in a limo following Detroit’s first Stanley Cup victory in 42 years, ended his hockey career. As they retell and I recall, it motivated the Red Wings to repeat as champs with a teary eyed ending following a sweep of the Caps turning into the emotional moment of Konstantinov being wheeled out with the Cup. It’s still one of those moments that gives fans chills. The whole two hour movie is done so well. It sure takes me back to a different time.

For my money, the Hart season Fedorov put together in ’93-94 where he was at the pinnacle going 56-64-120, remains the best ever season by a Russian hockey player. He led the league with 39 even strength goals while adding another 42 assists at even strength, totaling 81 ES points. He added 13 power play goals, four shorthanded and 10 game-winning goals. Number 91 was all world firing 337 shots and going plus-48 to win the Selke while sweeping the Hart and Pearson elected by the players. He was special.

John Carlson leads all defensemen with 28 points (10-18-28), turning it into a video game. This is the way it once was for Paul Coffey, who only played with some of the all-time greats with Edmonton, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles and then Detroit. His 28 points are 10 clear of Dougie Hamilton and 11 up on Roman Josi and Calder leader Cale Makar.

Erik Karlsson is minus-11 with a goal and 10 apples in Year One of that big new contract in San Jose. The injuries have taken a toll on the old 29-year old defenseman with a high pain threshold. It’s too bad he’s struggling so mightily. We called it. Teammate Brent Burns is not much better either with a minus-11 despite 16 points (3-13-16). No wonder the Sharks are where they are.

The Leafs remain a good team that’s flawed. Despite all their insane talent, they give up almost as many goals as they score. They added Tyson Barrie in an offseason trade with the Avalanche to improve the defense. However, Mike Babcock hasn’t figured out how to utilize him. Morgan Rielly puts up all the points from the blueline still. Mystifying.

At some point, Sergei Bobrovsky is gonna turn it around with Florida. He’s too good a netminder for this to continue. They’re winning in spite of him. Joel Quenneville is one of the best coaches. He’ll reel it in.

If both Ryan Strome and Tony DeAngelo continue producing, how do the Rangers not extend both? They’re part of the team’s early success. Neither is old. There’s nothing wrong with keeping good players to move your rebuild in the right direction.

I found it fascinating how Alexei Kovalev critiqued how he was handled by the Rangers. Especially in the short-lived second go round when Glen Sather acquired him back from Pittsburgh. Somehow, he was misused by playing out of position as a left wing instead of his normal right wing. He also wasn’t utilized properly on the power play. Funny. But even when they were making the playoffs under Alain Vigneault, he misused Eric Staal similarly. Hockey’s Different Here!

For more on Kovalev and Fedorov, go follow Gillian Kemmerer on Twitter @gilliankemmerer. She had two great interviews with each. Kovalev’s can be found here.

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 New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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2 Responses to HARD HITS: How good are the Islanders?

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