The New York Islanders biggest habit that needed to be corrected when the calendar turned over to 2023 was their slow starts. Early in this season, the Islanders seemed unprepared and would show up a little too late in games. Dominant finishes counteracted the slower starts as the season progressed, which covered up their first-period blunders.
But in 2023, slow starts haven’t just been a habit. They seem to be an addiction, and neither New York Islanders head coach Lane Lambert nor his players no how to stop it.
“I don’t know. We’re searching for answers on that,” Lambert said. “We have to find answers.”
The Islanders opened up 2023 on a four-game road trip, with one final game against the Calgary Flames Friday night before returning home.
The Islanders have gone 1-2-0 over the first three, with a pitiful performance in a 4-1 loss to the Seattle Kraken, burying themselves early. Then despite a rather slow start against the Vancouver Canucks, Lambert’s club woke up in the second and came away with a 6-2 win.
That’s a final forty minutes the Islanders wanted to build on, but they did the opposite as they reverted to how they played against Seattle in their 4-2 loss to the Edmonton Oilers, with their performance much worse than what the scoreboard indicated.
“We knew they were going to come hard,” Lambert said. “We failed to make little plays…make a little place to get pucks out of your zone when teams are coming at you hard, and we didn’t. It didn’t help that we gave the power play two chances early on, and they gained a bunch of momentum off of that. So we just got to be better. That’s it.”
Forward Brock Nelson echoed his head coach.’
“Not too sure, to be honest. Combination,” Nelson said on why they continue to start games on the wrong foot. “Maybe a couple turnovers early and not enough pressure on the forecheck.”
“So just got to go out there and work, simple, try and manage the puck and go from there. Move your feet, use your speed and then after that, kind of let instinct take over to make plays.”
The Islanders’ strength is their forechecking ability, and when they fail to do that early, they give themselves little to no chance of playing their brand, which allows the opponents to play theirs.
“We’re trying to figure it out here,” Dobson said. “It’s obviously not good enough to start the game like that. We knew they had lost a couple in a row. We knew they were going to come out hard. We knew that was going to happen. We just got to be ready for it. “We’re turning too many pucks over early on in that game. We’re spending too much time in our own end. We just got to regroup here.”
“It’s just a matter of just bearing down,” Pulock said. “It’s just a matter of every single guy individually to having themselves ready to go, play the right way and the way that we play. When we don’t do that, we don’t have a lot of success.”
On this road trip, the Islanders have been outscored in the first period 4-1 and have been outshot 42-20. If it were not for the play of netminder Ilya Sorokin, all three of these games would have been over after the first 20.
He stopped 11 of 12 in the first period against Seattle, 11 of 12 in the first period against Vancouver, and 16 of 18 in the first period against Edmonton.
And this is a goaltender who had played eight straight games.
Friday night, Semyon Varlamov returns to the crease, and if the Islanders are not sharp early and do not allow him to settle in, it could be a long night for Varlamov and the team.
Over these last three games, the New York Islanders have played three weak netminders in Martin Jones, Spencer Martin, and Jack Campbell. But their inability to test them early allowed two of the three to settle in and not have to worry.
The Islanders had six shots in the first period against Jones, 10 in the first against Martin, and just four in the first against Campbell.
The Islanders got to Canucks netminder Spencer Martin in the second and third periods of Tuesday’s game because they started firing at will.
When the Islanders have scored the first goal this season, they have won 14 of 18 games. On the flip side, when they have allowed the first goal, they are 8-12-0. They have been outscored 28-23 in the first, the only period they have been outscored in this season.
To take the stat lines a step further, when the Islanders have entered the first intermission with a lead, they are 8-1-0 but just 5-6-1 when trailing.
They have just two wins in 10 road games they have trailed after one period.
What can Lambert do?
Sure, he could bench a few players, but the issue is not just one individual–it’s the entire group.
It comes down to the leadership in the room to break this habit.
The New York Islanders may not be the most talented team in the NHL, but they are a much better team than they have shown in the opening 20 minutes of hockey games.