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Why goaltending and defense will make or break the Islanders' post-season

The New York Islanders are in the midst of their best season in recent memory and it’s coming in the final year at Nassau Coliseum. But if the team can’t get better at suppressing shots and Jaroslav Halak can’t improve his game, it could be an early exit from the post-season for the Islanders.
The Hockey News

The Hockey News

The rise of the New York Islanders this season has been one of the league’s great stories. In their final year at Nassau Coliseum, the Islanders have recaptured the spirit of Long Island’s once great teams. Sadly, however, there might be a fatal flaw standing between the Islanders and playoff glory: goaltending.

You see, for much of the season, while the talk has been about how GM Garth Snow has reshaped the roster and turned the team into a contender in just one short off-season, goaltender Jaroslav Halak has been struggling on a near nightly basis. Goaltender Michal Neuvirth was brought in at the trade deadline from the Buffalo Sabres to help spark the struggling Halak but now, as the playoffs near, the question isn’t how deep the Islanders stars can carry them, it’s whether or not their goaltending can be equal to the task in the post-season.

While it didn’t show in the standings, the concerns for the Islanders began early. Through October, the Islanders sat one point back of the Pittsburgh Penguins for first in the Metropolitan Division and had won six of their first 10 games despite having the fifth worst 5-on-5 save percentage in the league. As October closed, the Islanders’ 5-on-5 SP was .896, tied with the Columbus Blue Jackets and New York Rangers and just barely ahead of the Arizona Coyotes and Carolina Hurricanes.

The goaltending situation looked up briefly in November as the Islanders leapt to 19th in the league in 5-on-5 SP, their .917 total tying them with the Colorado Avalanche. During that stretch, the Islanders improved their record to 17-7-0, and had 34 points to tie them with the Penguins for the division lead. Since November, though, it has looked more like the season’s opening month was a sign of what was to come.

At the end of December, New York’s 5-on-5 SP was sixth worst at .912. Despite that, the Islanders remained tied with the Penguins. As teams broke off for the All-Star Game in late January, the Islanders were again fourth worst in the league, with a lowly .909 SP at 5-on-5. Miraculously, the Islanders had somehow managed to take over the division lead. Things looked good for the Islanders, but their goaltending remained a reason for some distress.

No matter what the Islanders have done, the situation in goal has failed to improve. As of Sunday night, the Islanders again have the fifth lowest 5-on-5 SP. They’ve sunk from first in the division to third place, have zero games in hand and the Washington Capitals are sitting just three points back. What was once a tremendous story looks increasingly like it could end as a nightmare – a season sunk by shoddy goaltending.

The Islanders scoring, however, has masked much of the issue. At 5-on-5, only four teams have scored more than New York’s 155 goals. And why worry when Halak has a 36-16-2 record – the best of his career.

But his base numbers – a 2.42 GAA and .913 SP – are two of the lousiest totals he’s posted in the NHL. At 5-on-5, of the 25 goalies that have played 2,000 minutes this season, Halak ranks 15th with a SP of .922. Outside of Jimmy Howard and Ben Bishop, that’s the lowest total of any playoff bound starting goaltender. While that may say more about Howard and Bishop than it does Halak, consider that for the most part his numbers have been buoyed by his fabulous November.

Over the last month and a half, Halak’s 5-on-5 SP has slipped to .916. In eight appearances since the trade deadline, his .927 SP ranks 20th of 35 goaltenders who have played at least five games. And things get worse when you consider Neuvirth, the goaltender who is supposed to be pushing Halak, is the worst netminder in the NHL since the deadline. In five starts, Neuvirth has been dreadful, posting a 5-on-5 SP of .868, the lowest mark in the league over that span by .03.

And though their scoring has been incredible and has helped provide cover for the poor goaltending, not even stars like John Tavares, Kyle Okposo, Ryan Strome, Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy can cover everything, especially in a system that has the Islanders playing a high-risk, high-reward brand of hockey.

Over the course of the year, at 5-on-5, the Islanders shot attempts for percentage has floated at or near the top of the NHL. As of Sunday, the Islanders are fifth in the league in the advanced metric. Being ranked fifth, however, may come as a surprise when you consider the Islanders are the league leaders in shot attempts for per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time and have been for most of the season.

With 61.4 attempts for per 60 minutes, the Islanders are well ahead of teams like the Los Angeles Kings, Nashville Predators, Tampa Bay Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins, some of the league’s top contenders. They even rank ahead of the Chicago Blackhawks, one of the league’s premier offensive teams. Nonetheless, the Islanders rank 17th in attempts against per 60 minutes of 5-on-5, allowing 54.8 attempts.

Since mid-February, the Islanders are the fourth worst team in the league at shot suppression, allowing 60.4 attempts against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5. What that means is while Halak and Neuvirth are posting some of their worst career numbers and needing support defensively, the opposition is bombarding them. That’s not a recipe for success.

While winger Mikhail Grabovski has shown great ability in the puck possession game, there are no defensemen missing from the regular lineup who will come back to provide an immediate boost.

For the Islanders to be successful, they’ll need to rely on strong team defense and limiting shot attempts. They’ll also need Halak to play even close to how he did in the 2009-10 playoffs when he was a member of the Montreal Canadiens and made his name.

Things have looked bright on Long Island all season, and it would be a storybook ending to a building that hosted one of the great hockey dynasties if the Islanders were to lift the Stanley Cup one more time in Uniondale. But if the Islanders can’t stop the barrage or have their goaltenders turn it on – and especially if neither happens – it’s going to be a short run and a sad goodbye to close out Nassau Coliseum.



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