Just past the halfway mark of the season it is the surprise New York Islanders who sit atop the standings in the Eastern Conference. After winning 29 of their first 43 games the shock is over. This team should not be taken lightly.
The Islanders made a statement to the entire New York market by handling red-hot Rangers at Madison Square Garden en route to a 3-0 victory.
The Blueshirts started off the game strong by establishing a quick tempo and generated multiple scoring opportunities. They rang the post a number of times but couldn’t find the back of the net.
“Luck was on my side,” Jaroslav Halak said following his brilliant 27 save performance. “It could have been a different game if they got the first one.”
After the Rangers failed to capitalize on their scoring chances in the first, the Islanders would not make the same mistake. Anders Lee stuffed home a rebound and then after a horrendous J.T. Miller turnover, Nikolay Kulemin sniped one past Lundqvist. Frans Nielsen scored the backbreaking goal shorthanded with just 41 seconds remaining in the second period that sent Lundqvist to the bench.
“Overall we had our jump,” Jack Capuano said after the Islanders first shutout in MSG since 1975. “That’s what we were looking for, to come into this building, with all the hype and just play our game… I thought we executed well tonight.”
While the Islanders played some of their best hockey – especially the last 40 minutes – the Rangers were not pleased with their performance.
“We were the slower team, which we haven’t been in this last stretch,” Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh said after the team allowed 44 shots, their most since October 8, 2013 at San Jose (the 9-2 Tomas Hertl game). “We know what makes us successful and we just weren’t doing it tonight. They were definitely making us look pretty slow out there.”
The Islanders closed out their seven game road trip that started back in 2014 with a 5-2 record. They didn’t necessarily play their best hockey throughout the duration of the trip but managed to earn 10 out of a possible 14 points. They also closed the trip with three consecutive important divisional victories.
The Islanders have made it a point this season to get pucks to the net and are currently second in the league in shot on goal per game.
“If you’re going to look at pure mathematics, if you shoot the puck more you’re going to score more goals,” Islanders defenseman Travis Hamonic told NHL.com. “I know that sounds childish to say, but it’s probably going to work out. For us that’s obviously part of our game plan.”
The offensive change is a result of how the team is playing in their defensive zone according to Jack Capuano.
“When you play solid defense, guys are starting to realize that it is going to lead to offense.”
“You got to make a commitment to defense,” Capuano continued. “You got to make a commitment to play away from the puck. The guys who are going to do that are guys who are going to stay in the lineup. We got a lot of depth on our hockey team and a defense first mentality.
The Islanders will get a couple of days to rest before they use their defense first mentality against their divisional rival, the Pittsburgh Penguins.