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New York Islanders Respond Well to Early-Season Struggles

Adam Proteau analyzes the 9-6-0 New York Islanders, who are adding a level of intrigue to the NHL's Metropolitan Division playoff race.
New York Islanders

After getting off to a 2-4-0 start to the NHL season, the New York Islanders have looked like a different team, going 7-2-0 in the nine games that followed. And while they have to be disappointed with their most recent game – a 2-0 loss to the Arizona Coyotes Thursday on Long Island – the Isles are looking more like the team that, in the two seasons from 2019 to 2021, were a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.

The good news is that, unlike many, if not most NHL teams, they’re doing it with defense. In 15 games, the Islanders have surrendered only 38 goals – the second-fewest of any team in their Metropolitan Division, and that’s only because Philadelphia (34 goals) has played two fewer games than the Isles. Their 2.56 goals-against average is the best in the Metro, and star goalie Ilya Sorokin has again performed excellently, posting a 2.20 GAA and .933 save percentage in 10 games. In addition, their penalty kill, at an 85.7 percent success rate, is the NHL’s third-best.

First-year coach Lane Lambert is showing that mentor Barry Trotz rubbed off on him with his defensive acumen. In their nine wins, the Islanders have allowed more than three goals in a game only once and more than two goals in a single game three times.

This team makes opponents work for every inch of ice that’s out there, and Sorokin’s solid start raises the question of whether GM Lou Lamoriello should be seeking a new team for No. 2 goalie Semyon Varlamov. Lamoriello has to contend with Varlamov’s modified no-trade clause that allows him to submit a 16-team list of franchises he doesn’t want to be dealt to, but that still leaves a big potential bidding war for a veteran in the final year of his contract. And although Varlamov hasn’t been as sharp as Sorokin, the Isles still should be able to get a handsome haul in a seller’s market.

We can’t talk about the Islanders’ resurgence without noting their offense hasn’t been too shabby, either. They’ve got an above-average (11th overall) goals-for total of 3.27. There’s a real balance to the way they’re scoring with the top two forward lines doing the most damage, and the bottom-two lines aren’t hurting them in limited minutes.

Top center Mat Barzal is a season away from his eight-year, $73.2-million contract extension, and while his 15 assists thus far this year is much to the Isles’ liking, the fact he has yet to score shows there’s room for his game to grow as well.

It’s amazing how different things can feel in the NHL when you’re winning. Genuine, well-founded hope can be very difficult to come by. The Isles know this from their previous two years. And this year, they’re healthy in a way they haven’t been in some time.

That needs to continue for the Islanders if they’re to get back into the playoffs. Even with their impressive surge, the Isles are third in the Metro, one point ahead of the fourth-place New York Rangers. And you have to believe the sixth-and-seventh-place Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins aren’t going to go quietly into the night. There almost assuredly will be a push from them to try and vault past the Islanders for what could be the final post-season berth. A lot can still go wrong for the Isles.

For the moment, there should be happiness on Long Island. Lamoriello’s coaching change has gone well. The goalie they were counting on to come through for them has come through for them. They’re putting the puck in the net more regularly than they did last season. The playoffs appear to be a very realistic goal – and, once they’re there, Sorokin will be asked to elevate his development to thrive at the next competitive level. So long as he stays on point, the Islanders have shown the work ethic to make another deep post-season run. 

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