At first glance, it’s easy to overlook the New York Islanders. Having advanced past the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs just once in the last 25 years, it’s seldom that the Islanders find themselves sitting amongst the game’s premier teams.
Through the first quarter of the 2017-18 season, the Islanders transformed into one of the game’s best-kept secrets, led by an offense producing at a clip not seen since the days of Pierre Turgeon and Brad Dalgarno. Their incomparable early success results in an 8-0-2 record on home ice, fortified by Tuesday’s 5-2 victory over the Vancouver Canucks to close the month of November.
“We have a pretty explosive team,” Isles head coach Doug Weight said. “They are playing with a lot of confidence and consistently figuring each other out in the way we move, not just with lines, but in groups of five. This is what we want to do and possess the puck in the offensive zone. The players are definitely buying into how we get it down there and how we skate in the neutral zone. It feeds that offensive potential.”
Former Islanders’ netminder Anders Nilsson drew the assignment of trying to curtail the end-to-end offensive attack for Vancouver, but could not anticipate Andrew Ladd streaking to the net for an uncontested goal on a shorthanded attempt 5:43 into the first period. After Thomas Vanek quickly evened the score on a power-play goal, the Isles scored twice in a one-minute span, on tallies from Calvin De Haan and Jordan Eberle, the latter recording the 400th point of his career.
“It’s a league that is tough to get into, but it’s a league that is even tougher to stay in, so you always try to raise the bar, especially with how fast the game is now. You really have to work hard in the offseason.” Eberle said about the milestone. “I want to play in this league as long as I can. It’s a good starting point, and it’s fun playing hockey here when you are winning and scoring.”
Despite holding a two-goal lead, the Isles did not relent on the offensive end and took advantage of Vancouver’s defensive miscues to extend their margin. The Canucks had difficulty clearing the puck out of their own zone facing a litany of shots and faced the consequences when Christopher Tanev’s pass ricocheted off the skate of his own teammate and onto Anders Lee’s stick for an additional goal in the second period. The captain John Tavares closed the scoring with his team-leading 16th goal of the season for insurance in the final stanza.
“I think we are doing a good job maintaining pressure in the zone and wearing them down,” Lee said. “I know it sounds simple, and it sounds cliché, but when we play the right way and how we want to, it’s pretty effective. Right now we have the fans on our backs and the momentum that we’ve had playing here at home. We just have to keep playing hard.”
Since the start of the regular season, the Islanders opted to employ a platoon system in goal with Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss sharing the responsibilities between the pipes. On the heels of his impressive performance against the Ottawa Senators in his last start, Halak drew the nod again on Tuesday, earning his second consecutive win after turning aside 23 of a possible 25 shots. Halak did his part to secure the lead and helped set the tone for the defense. His most notable save came in the third period when a snared a Michael Del Zotto slapshot to maintain a two-goal advantage.
“We played a really good game for 60 minutes,” Halak said. They (the Canucks) obviously made a bit of a push in the third period, but we did a good job not giving them odd-man rushes and were able to create turnovers. I just tried to battle, and that’s what happened tonight. We played really well even though they tried to come back, but we were still able to control the game.”
“We have had some leads lately, and the biggest thing is simply learning to play with that lead,” Eberle said. “Obviously, every team is good in this league, and they are going to make a push, but we have to learn how to defend against it, and we have been doing a good job.”
With 14 points in their last eight contests, the Islanders sit just one point behind the Columbus Blue Jackets for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division and remain the only NHL team not to suffer a regulation loss on home ice. As the team maintains their torrid pace on offense, their defense and goaltending appear to show signs of improvement. If each facet of their play continues taking shape, the Isles will have all the elements of a potential contender with room to add to their club.
“There’s a lot of guys we have that feel great about scoring, but they play an unselfish game,” Weight said. “I like the mentality we have because we can roll guys at our opponents and dominate that way. We talked about playing with pace, and we just have to keep getting better by percentage points on defense, and we will get better as a team.”