The entirety of the New York Islanders 2018-19 campaign was an exercise in waiting for the other shoe to drop. Everything about their performance defied modern-era logic. The roster had lost its best player. Not a single addition appeared primed to really move the needle. There was a coaching change, a management shift and the organization seemed ripe for a reset. And once the games actually began, the numbers all seemingly said the same thing: the Islanders were outplaying expectations and it’d only be a matter of time before it all came crashing down.
By the time the Islanders finally fell back to earth, if you can even call it that, they were waylaid by a Carolina Hurricanes team that was bunch-of-jerksing their way to the Eastern Conference final on the strength of pure possession hockey, a few breakout performances and one of the league’s strongest and deepest defense corps. But that defeat only came after the Islanders had done their own dispatching of the top-heavy Pittsburgh Penguins and pieced together a 103-point campaign that was the franchise’s best since the 1983-84 season.
So, given the way New York disregarded every pre-season prognostication last season, it stands to reason that nothing about the Islanders’ success this season should surprise anyone. Then again, who would have figured New York for a 10-game, nearly month-long winning streak this early in the campaign?
As the Islanders prepare to host the Penguins Thursday night, they do so with the league’s first and only double-digit winning streak of the season, a run that New York has been able to keep alive against some tough competition. The early portion of the streak featured a shootout win over the Florida Panthers, was followed by an overtime defeat of the defending champion St. Louis Blues and has since been followed by victories against projected playoff clubs such as the Arizona Coyotes, Philadelphia Flyers and Tampa Bay Lightning. The odd thing about the Islanders’ winning streak, though, is that regardless of what New York accomplished last season, there’s still those who are hesitant to feel all that comfortable in putting their faith in the Islanders. And this is the part where we have to talk about the numbers.
By most metrics, underlying or otherwise, the Islanders fall more in line with the league’s bottom feeders than they do the cream of the crop. That’s not so much to disparage the Islanders as it is indisputable fact. No team in the league has mustered fewer shots per game than New York. More than half the league allows fewer shots against per game than the Islanders. And the advanced statistics aren’t glowing. The Islanders rank 30th in Corsi percentage (45.5), 30th in shots percentage (46.9), 28th in scoring chance percentage (46.8) and even their expected goals percentage (49.6) ranks 21st at five-a-side. That sees New York keeping close company with the likes of the Chicago Blackhawks, Ottawa Senators and rival New York Rangers, none of which are exactly short-odds Stanley Cup contenders.
For those who pay attention to such things, though, conspicuous by its absence in the above numbers is the Islanders’ high-danger chance percentage. Reader, that is not without reason. In that category and that category alone, New York is among the class of the league at 5-on-5, seventh in the NHL at 54 percent through 14 games. And contrary to what some might believe, it’s not because the Islanders have been all that stingy or because New York has sheltered their goaltenders all that well. At 10.2 high-danger chances against per 60 minutes, the Islanders have allowed the 11th-most high-quality chances at five-a-side of any club. Counteracting that, however, has been a remarkable ability to produce quality opportunities of their own. The 12 high-danger chances per 60 minutes are second only to the 12.2 the advanced-statistical darling Hurricanes generate.
It might just be, too, that this is one of the keys to understanding how the Islanders have been able to find and sustain success, one piece of the method to coach Barry Trotz’s madness. It’s among the only things that has remained a positive for the Islanders. Last season, despite similarly poor underlying numbers, the lone category in which New York succeeded was high-danger chances. At five-a-side, New York boasted a 52.5 percentage in 2018-19, 14th in the league but up there with the likes of the Lightning, Calgary Flames and Boston Bruins. And seems as though the Islanders’ consistent ability to get to prime areas, and get to those areas more often than the opposition, has been a partial catalyst.
Partial, of course, because there should be no argument that New York’s success remains predicated largely on the play of their goaltenders.
Mere months after putting a bow on the best season of his career, Thomas Greiss is again posting exceptional numbers. He boasts a .937 save percentage and 2.00 goals-against average through eight games, as well as a .945 SP and .86 goals-saved above average at five-a-side, the latter marks ranking second and third, respectively, among netminders with at least 300 minutes played. Goaltending guru Mitch Korn and goaltending coach Piero Greco are meanwhile working their Midas-like magic once again, this time with Semyon Varlamov. His .929 SP and 2.14 GAA are only a fraction below Greiss’ marks, and Varlamov ranks fifth among 300-minute netminders with a .942 SP and sixth with a .67 GSAA. No goaltending platoon is better.
As the season winds on, there’s the distinct possibility that what the Islanders’ numbers say and what their performance tells us will be two entirely different things. But if the goaltending holds, the high-danger chance percentage remains a strength and New York remains successful, will even one single member of the Islanders faithful care? This is the business of winning, and Trotz continues to find a way to do that with his group.
(All advanced statistics via NaturalStatTrick)
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