There are those that dispute the notion that points collected in October hold the same weight or importance as those later in the season. But in a league predicated on parity, no team takes any game lightly. In their first 12 games, the New York Islanders find themselves near the top of the Eastern Conference standings, knowing there is room for growth while also pleased with their recent efforts.
“You always feel like you left some points out there,” Islanders head coach Doug Weight said. “It’s the just the way it is with human nature. But we fought hard in some games, whether it was not a great start or had some things going against us. We managed to win games, and hopefully, we learned a little bit along the way here. We are learning, and hopefully, we’re getting better with every game.”
An early season test for the Isles came in the form of the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, who came into Brooklyn on Monday with an 8-1 record on the heels of their first shutout in franchise history against Colorado. But despite some early difficulties on special teams, the Isles found ways to overcome their errors and show signs of life offensively with a 6-3 win and finish October with an unbeaten record at home in regulation.
The Golden Knights appeared to have early momentum and applied pressure on the Islanders in the first period, most notably when Nick Leddy failed to catch up with Cody Eakin in the corner, leading to a shorthanded tally from William Carlsson to open the scoring for Vegas. Andrew Ladd recorded the equalizer on a slapshot, igniting the Isles’ attack and easing some pressure.
“I think being down there is no panic,” Ladd said. “We feel we can push hard and create chances. We were confident. That’s part of being a good team is having those ups and downs and never feeling there’s any panic in the room. You are always pushing to contribute when you get chances to put the puck into the net. When you have stretches like we are as a group, you feel good, and it resonates around the dressing room.”
In recent games, rookie Mathew Barzal provided energy for the Isles and found himself with increased ice time, while rewarding his club with strong play in the offensive zone. Perhaps Barzal’s most significant contribution came on the power play after an Anders Lee backhand shot hit the crossbar and ricocheted towards his stick and into the net. The Isles, who had problems with their power play of late, recorded two goals with the extra man in the second period, including the first of two goals in the game John Tavares, and added three breakaway goals in the final session.
“We got a guy whose got 11 goals on one line (Tavares) and a tough couple of lines to match up speed-wise, and Barzal will be in some ok matchups and surprise guys,” Weight said. “I do agree that the league is so vast and unless a guy has 12 or 13 points at the age of 19 or 20, they won’t notice him as much and I think his numbers are guarded a bit and not reflected of the way he’s played.”
“Obviously, you don’t want to give up too many opportunities. We have given up way too many to start the year, but it was a good response,” Tavares said. “A couple of big goals put us in a good position and gave us some energy and some momentum. We get contributions up and down the lineup. Obviously, that’s key to score six goals (as a team in back-to-back games) and playing with pace. The execution is there, and we’re just competing really hard.”
Aided by their impressive start as an expansion team, the Golden Knights took the league by storm with their unique mix of promising youth and accomplished veterans. More impressively, their success sustained despite losing goaltenders Marc-Andre Fleury and Malcolm Subban to extended injuries. The Golden Knights faced more trouble between the pipes when third-stringer Oscar Dansk left Monday’s game with an injury of his own but continued showing endurance in defeat.
“They work really hard and are structured,” Weight said of the Golden Knights. “Give George (McPhee), Gerard (Gallant), the coaching staff, and the guys in that room credit. They play hard. They weren’t necessarily shunned, but they were drafted onto an expansion team or were traded and have a great opportunity. They are playing together and keep battling. They are a good hockey team and credit everybody involved.”
With a 7-4-1 mark to close October and continued dominance on home ice, the Islanders demonstrate the importance of collecting early season points, while continually looking to solidify their play. For aspiring contenders, any juncture of the schedule may prove the difference between a possible playoff berth or a premature end to the season. As teams such as the New York Rangers and Montreal Canadiens stumble out of the gate amid high expectations, the Islanders flourish with room to build off a formative start.
“With pretty much the same team back from last year, we knew we needed to get off to a better start this year,” Ladd said. “We had a few tough games early in the year, but we were confident in our group in what we can do and how we can play. We tried to stick with that, and the sign of a good team is getting back at it after an off night and having a good outing the next night, and that’s what we did (against Vegas), and we just have to keep playing.”