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What’s standing between the Islanders and top spot in the East?

The Islanders have one of the NHL’s most potent attacks and a productive defense that can get the job done in their own end. But New York could run into some problems between the pipes.

Given that the Islanders finished last season a single point outside the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference despite a disastrous first half of the 2016-17 campaign, playing out their final 40 games with a 24-12-4 record, maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised that through 30 games of the current season, New York finds themselves right near the top of the Metropolitan Division. After all, from the moment Doug Weight stepped behind the Islanders bench in mid-January 2017 until present, there are only three teams in the league that have accumulated more points and won more regular season games.

Still, though, considering New York failed to make the playoffs last season, few predicted the Islanders would be knocking on the door for the top seed in a division that houses the Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals, Columbus Blue Jackets and New York Rangers. But among the Metropolitan teams battling for supremacy in a division that has shown to be as difficult — or more so — than any other in the league, the Islanders have been one of the best.

Offensively, the Islanders are verging on unassailable. With 106 goals in 30 games, an average of 3.53 per game, New York has had the second-best attack in the entire league, sitting only a fraction behind that of the Tampa Bay Lightning. John Tavares has been the unquestionable leader, Josh Bailey the surprising and skilled playmaker, Anders Lee has dazzled with his finishing ability and Mathew Barzal’s rookie campaign has Calder Trophy potential. All four aforementioned players have 25 or more points, too, making the Islanders one of only three teams to have four players in the top 50 of league scoring.

It’s not as though the Islanders are entirely forsaking defense for the sake of offense, either. At 5-on-5, New York has a slightly above average possession rate, sit in the middle of the pack when it comes to their shots for percentage and have a similar standing when it comes to limiting scoring chances and high-danger chances against. With a stable of rearguards that includes Johnny Boychuk, Nick Leddy and Calvin de Haan, as much should be expected. And the blueline’s generation of offense can’t be overlooked. Leddy has six goals and 24 points in 30 games, while de Haan and Adam Pelech also boast double-digit point totals.

But despite the offensive ability and defensive structure, it’s difficult not to wonder about the Islanders’ ability to win the big one and make a real run at the Stanley Cup with Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss as their goaltending duo.

Despite a stellar performance against the Capitals, the one goal surrendered by Halak on Monday night marked the 99th marker that has slipped past an Islanders netminder this season, a significant tally in that it pushed New York into sole possession of the fifth-worst goals against total this season and set the Islanders’ goals-against average at 3.26. That New York has been able to get away with goaltending so porous is a testament to the offensive ability of the club, as it should be noted that none of the four teams with a higher GAA — the Ottawa Senators, Buffalo Sabres, Florida Panthers and Arizona Coyotes — find themselves in a playoff position.

That’s no fluke, nor is it the fault of injuries to either Halak or Greiss that has resulted in a third- or fourth-stringer coming into action and getting blown out of the crease. The reality for the Islanders is that neither Halak or Greiss has been anything better than average this season. According to hockey-reference.com, goaltenders have posted a .912 average save percentage this season, which is slightly down from last season’s mark but understandably so given league-wide scoring is up by nearly a quarter of a goal per game. Halak, however, was only able to boost his SP to .909 with his 31-save performance against the Capitals on Monday, while Greiss and his .890 SP watched on from the bench. Of the 48 goaltenders to play at least 10 games this season, Halak and Greiss rank 27th and 44th in SP, respectively.

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As noted by his SP, Greiss in particular has had tough campaign. Signed to a three-year, $10-million contract late last season, the 31-year-old netminder was brought back by New York with the intent to be the starting netminder. And he did get the reins out of training camp, but has been fighting an uphill battle since the start of the season. On opening night, Greiss surrendered five goals on 26 shots in a half an outing before getting pulled, and neither his numbers nor his play has been able to recover. His aforementioned all-strengths SP puts him near the bottom of the league, and his numbers at 5-on-5 don’t do him any favors at all. His .903 SP puts him 32nd out of the 35 goaltenders to play at least 500 minutes. 

Thankfully, Halak has been the polar opposite of Greiss at five-a-side. Compared to the same group of 5-on-5 netminders, the 32-year-old, who many considered trade bait at the tail end of last season and into the summer, has been among the league’s best. His .937 SP is second-best among goaltenders to play at least 500 minutes. 

So, where then has Halak struggled that has caused his SP to dip so precipitously from 5-on-5 play to all strengths? In much the same area Greiss has struggled greatly: the penalty kill. There are 42 goaltenders who have faced 50-plus shorthanded minutes, including both Halak and Greiss, and of those netminders, the Islanders duo ranks 36th and 30th, respectively. Halak’s .835 SP has been a sore spot for a New York penalty kill that is second-worst in the NHL, while Greiss’ .866 SP hasn’t been all that much better. Making matters worse, though, is that both have fallen well below their expected SP on the kill. It’s not as though the defense hasn’t done its job in insulating the netminders, but rather than neither has been able to backstop the penalty kill to any success. In the post-season, and when games matter most, having a goaltender who can bail the team out will matter.

The issue for the Islanders, however, is finding a way to solidify the crease at this point in the season. Goaltenders who are both available and can provide a legitimate upgrade on Halak and Greiss are few and far between, especially in the midst of the campaign, and the cost could be prohibitive for an organization that likely doesn’t want to part ways with many futures. Realistically, that could leave New York tied to Halak and Greiss and hoping the duo can weather the storm. But for a team that has shown so much promise offensively and has a defense that can get the job done, if neither Halak or Greiss turn things around greatly at all strengths, the crease could be the Achilles’ heel for what has thus far been a promising Islanders team.

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