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Will Islanders’ surge under Weight be enough to challenge for a wild-card spot?

The Islanders have five wins and points in seven of eight games under coach Doug Weight, but it’s still going to be a battle to get back into post-season contention after early season woes.

The Islanders may have been coming off of a win at the tail end of Jack Capuano’s stay, but overall, it was about the lowest point of their season. While the 4-0 defeat of the Boston Bruins was encouraging, the Islanders’ 42 points were the lowest total in the entire Eastern Conference, and only the Arizona Coyotes and Colorado Avalanche saved New York from being in the league’s basement. 

At the time of Capuano’s firing, back on Jan. 16, the Islanders’ 16 wins in regulation or overtime made for the fourth-worst total, they boasted a goal-differential of minus-eight, they were dropping divisional games and conference games and about the only opponents who New York could consistently beat were in the Western Conference.

But suddenly there appears to be hope for the Islanders.

In the eight games since Doug Weight stepped in to take over for Capuano, New York has found its way back into the playoff hunt. The Islanders have points in all but one game since Weight found his way behind the bench, five of those being wins, and have somewhat unexpectedly shot back up the standings, enough so that they’re closing in on a wild-card spot. And that Weight has come in and immediately provided results has been cause for some minor celebration for the Islanders, something they haven’t been able to do much of this season. 

Now, with 32 games left on their schedule, New York looks to be in position to make a move up the standings. They’re five points back of the Philadelphia Flyers for the final wild-card spot with three games in hand and the light early season schedule allowed New York to gain at least a single game in hand on every non-playoff team in the Eastern Conference, save the very Toronto Maple Leafs who the Islanders will square off against Monday night.

The games in hand give New York the opportunity to gain ground on nights their opponents are forced to scoreboard watch, and the apparent turnaround in both offense and defense — the Islanders have a plus-seven goal differential since Weight took over — has the Islanders looking potentially lethal again. Pair that with Thomas Greiss’ strong play, which has given New York the stability in goal they were so sorely lacking to start the year, and there’s some confidence that all might not be lost in 2016-17.

However, despite all the promise, the Islanders’ performance under the surface doesn’t do much in the way of providing positivity when it comes to Weight’s impact or the club’s chance at turning this season around. Consider that in some key underlying statistical categories, the Islanders have actually taken a step back in their time under their interim coach. 

During Capuano’s tenure this season, New York was nearly breaking even in scoring chances for and against, and the team was playing freewheeling, fire-wagon hockey at 5-on-5. Per 60 minutes at five a side, the Islanders were averaging the ninth-most scoring chances for while giving up the second-most against. The chances against have lessened under Weight — the Islanders rank 10th since he took over, and that’s a good thing — but the chances for have fallen off the map. 

Once generating more than nine per 60 minutes, New York’s produced a measly 3.2 in eight games under Weight, good for 18th in the league. Going hand in hand with the dip in legitimate chances, the team’s shooting percentage, which was among the league’s best at 5-on-5 under Capuano, has taken a slight dive, and New York’s expected goals for percentage has dropped by nearly two percent to 45.7.

The one positive, however, is that the most evident of New York’s underlying woes has seemingly corrected itself thanks to Weight’s coaching.

Before Capuano was out from the behind the bench, one of the Islanders’ biggest faults was their inability to possess the puck. Of the league’s 30 teams, only Arizona had fared worse than New York through the first half of the schedule, and the Islanders’ 46.3 Corsi For percentage at 5-on-5 was far from inspiring, giving little hope a quick turnaround was in the offing. Results were the reason for Capuano’s firing, to be sure, but it couldn’t have helped that the team was losing the possession battle and chasing the game on a consistent basis under their now-former coach.

With Weight at the helm, though, the Islanders have turned in a more favorable performance when it comes to driving play. It’s still not above the break-even point, unfortunately, but the Islanders’ 49.2 Corsi For percentage at 5-on-5 is a solid improvement. Eight games is absolutely a small sample size, but all indications thus far are that Weight’s preferred style of play is helping the Islanders get more pucks toward the net. Controlling the play seems to have helped in goal, as well. In the first 42 games under Capuano, the Islanders’ 5-on-5 save percentage was a middling .921. New York has shot up to 11th in the league with a mark of .933 in the roughly two weeks under Weight.

That the Islanders have been better at controlling play is encouraging, but there’s still room for major improvement. Even with a nearly three percent increase, New York remains in the bottom half of the league in possession at 5-on-5 since Weight took over. Beyond that, their ability to control play hasn’t translated to more scoring opportunities or even a greater percentage of the overall chances, and turning possession into chances is an important second step.

Where the Islanders have more than a glimmer of hope, though, is that Weight has a greater weapon to deploy than nearly any other coach: captain John Tavares. Since Weight took over, Tavares has been on fire, netting four goals and picking up 11 points in eight games while averaging upwards of 20 minutes of ice time per night. If there’s any way for a team to buck unfavorable underlying numbers, it’s through incredible individual performances. Riding their captain down the stretch could be the pathway to the post-season for the Islanders, especially if Tavares continues to score at a rate of nearly 1.4 points per game. Relying on that and that alone is a gamble, though.

Weight came into a tough situation, forced to dig New York out of an early season hole that would have sunken most clubs. That the Islanders have managed to even get back into the conversation for a wild-card spot is impressive, but underlying numbers show a team that’s going to have an uphill battle if they want to earn a third-consecutive post-season berth, and any improvement now may simply be too little, too late.

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