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Islanders One-Timers: Back in the Playoff Hunt, Thoughts After 20 Games

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New York Islanders, Brock Nelson, Mathew Barzal
New York Islanders celebrating a Mathew Barzal power-play goal back on Jan. 25 against the Philadelphia Flyers (Photo-via New York Islanders Instagram)

The New York Islanders capped off their 20th game of the season with their 12th win, a comeback victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs. Last season, it took the Islanders until January 1, their 28th game, to reach that mark. But the past is in the past, and right now, New York is in third place in the Metropolitan Division, tied with the Carolina Hurricanes (2nd in Metro) with 24 points.

Let’s dive into our 20 thoughts after 20 games.

Lambert Not Shying Away

It may be his first year as an NHL head coach, but Lane Lambert knows what he’s doing. Besides a few questionable decisions, Lambert has shown a willingness to change things if they aren’t working, especially in third periods, where Islanders have been successful. He’s benched players who have struggled, even players that have been starters on the team for years. He’s allowed young players to play their game and learn by playing rather than by watching. He’s kept a goaltender rhythm and allowed Ilya Sorokin three of four starts. He’s played a more aggressive brand of hockey, as the Islanders offense, despite a lack of superstar talent, has averaged 3.33 goals per game. This same group only scored 2.79 goals per game a season ago.

Slow Stars, the Achilles heel

The New York Islanders’ biggest issue has been the slow starts to games, some painful slow. While the goal differential in the opening twenty hasn’t been terrible, 12 to 10 in favor of opponents, the Islanders have allowed the first goal in 12 of the first 20 games and have trailed six times after one. The Islanders have been better at starts, but there has not been enough juice early, which has put them in difficult spots.

Resiliency, the Name of the Game

As mentioned, the slow starts have put the New York Islanders in tough spots, but the comeback kids often come back. The Islanders have trailed 10 times after two periods and have found a way to win four. They have erased two-goal deficits in the third period three times. They have a never-quit attitude, even when the first half of games has shown little signs that a comeback was even possible. They have outscored their opponents 39-19 in third periods.

Lambert Not Satisfied With Forward Lines Just Yet

Lane Lambert has switched up his lines 15 times (per MoneyPuck, 10-min minimum). Lambert is close to the lines he wants, but Josh Bailey and Anthony Beauvillier‘s struggles have called for adjustments. He trusts the 3-P line and likes Anders Lee with Mathew Barzal and Oliver Wahlstrom. Not enough consistency to keep the lines the same.

Defensive Pairings Not Clicking

The New York  Islanders have struggled to play strong defensively. They ranked 11th in the NHL, allowing 2.75 goals per game. Due to Lambert’s aggressive style, they have been too loose in their own zone. Players are losing their man easily, and odd-man rushes happen too often. Another issue has been sloppy passing, which has eliminated their ability to break out and establish their game.

Sorokin At the Top of His Game

This season has been Ilya Sorokin‘s first as a true no. 1 NHL netminder, and he’s been phenomenal. He sits with a 2.37 GAA and a .926 SV% in 14 games behind shaky defense. He owns an 8.69 Goals Saved Above Average (fifth-best) and has stopped 114 of 135 high-danger shots against. The biggest difference from a season ago is that he is not allowing those weak goals and has a 76.9 quality start percentage, the best of his young career.

Varlamov’s Turnaround

After a struggling 2021-22 season, Semyon Varlamov has shown that last year was a fluke for him. He’s been a stable presence behind Sorokin, with a 2.97 GAA and a .914 SV%, but looks confident in goal and has bailed out the Islanders often. This is his first season as a no. 2. but the extra rest, a start every three games, has benefited him.

Barzal Has Been the Offensive Leader

It may have taken Mathew Barzal 19 games before scoring his first goal of the season. Through the scorelessness, Barzal was over a point-per-game player with 19 assists in 18 games. With his two goals and an assist Monday, he has 22 points in 20 games. He’s using his skating and playmaking ability to create chances for his teammates, who need to finish more. He’s on pace for 90 points.

Nelson Continuing Where He Left Off

Brock Nelson scored 37 goals a season ago and currently leads New York with nine goals. He has 11 assists to go along with it, as he also has 20 points in 20 games. After a slow start with no goals in seven games (six assists), he has nine over his last 13 games. He’s showing that last year’s offense was consistent and not just “streaky” like in years past.

Lee Looks Completely Healthy

Anders Lee was fresh off an ACL injury last season, and despite scoring 28 goals, he needed time to get comfortable. He’s been much more involved down low this season, winning board battles and battles in front to score rebounds. His play in front has been integral to the power play, when they score. He has eight goals and 10 assists.

Wahlstrom Not There Yet, But Getting There

Oliver Wahlstrom has struggled to find his game but has shown a little more understanding of how to play in this system, specifically with Barzal. Over the last few games, he has been winning battles and getting pucks to the point. He’s also made more of an effort to get to the slot. He’s been a team player, dropping the gloves twice, and has earned respect in the locker room. Everyone said he worked extremely hard this summer, but we are still waiting to see him be that sniper with Barzal.

Fourth Line Bouncing Back

The fourth line has seemed rejuvenated. Matt Martin has looked like a different player than he did a year ago. Casey Cizikas is back to being the energizer bunny, while Cal Clutterbuck has been that consistent player that keeps the line going. They haven’t started many games like they used to do, but more often than not have played to their identity.

Discipline Still an Issue for Cizikas

In 2021-22, Casey Cizikas led the Islanders with 48 PIM in 74 games. So far, in 2022-23, he has 23 PIM, on pace for 94.3. As a key penalty killer for the Islanders, he must stay out of the box as much as he can, especially given how strong his line has been.

Romanov a Blocking Machine

When Alexander Romanov was acquired, the belief was that he would be a hitting machine. While he’s laid the body 47 times in 20 games, he’s been a blocking machine, eating 48 total shots. Although the penalty kill has not been excellent since going eight games without a goal allowed, Romanov’s blocking ability has been key to their success.

Sebastian Aho Suprise

Despite not winning the final defensive spot out of training camp, Sebastian Aho has been a staple alongside Scott Mayfield for 16 games. He is playing calmer in his own zone, using his skating ability to escape danger. He has even contributed in transition and has made some intelligent plays for chances and assists. He’s been a surprise, but in a good way, for this Islanders team, as Robin Salo wasn’t consistent enough.

Achieving in Overtime

The Islanders only won three out of 13 overtime games a season ago but are 3-0-0 this season. The biggest difference has been communication, and face-off wins as Pageau has been tasked with that OT opening draw, winning it more often than not. And the Islanders have not taken much time to pot the goals. Zach Parise, Noah Dobson, and Anthony Beauvillier have the winners this season.

Avoiding Injuries

Knock on wood, but the Islanders have had a few minor injuries this season, as staying healthy has been an issue over the last few years. The Islanders had a scare in Monday’s win, but all three injured players (Nelson, Palmieri, Parise) returned and finished the game. The Islanders do not have too much NHL-ready depth to combat injuries. Besides Clutterbuck missing a game due to soreness, that’s been it on the injury front.

The UBS Advantage

Home was not an advantage in the first season at UBS Arena, but so far, the New York Islanders have played quite well in front of their fans. They are 6-3-0 and have outscored their opponents 30 to 22. They have averaged 3.33 goals per game at UBS, allowing 2.44. And the players have said the crowds have given them added energy.

On the Road

The New York Islanders survived their first two road trips of the season. Their record on the road is 6-5-0, after starting 0-2 after a weekend in Florida. They’ve outscored their opponents 36 to 33, with their last win being a 3-2 overtime win over the Toronto Maple Leafs. Anytime you can be .500 or better on the road, you take it.

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