Few people had much hope for the New York Islanders at the start of the season, with the team seeing the likes of John Tavares and Calvin de Haan depart in the summer. This came after the side had lost many other core players in recent years – such as Kyle Okposo, Travis Hamonic, and Frans Nielsen.
It appeared as though the team needed to commence a full rebuild, but instead, the Islanders claimed eight wins through their first 13 games. Despite emerging superstar Mathew Barzal only scoring three goals in the opening 29 games, the Islanders continued to tally wins.
With another big win streak to turn over the New Year, the Islanders found themselves in the thick of a Metropolitan battle at the 43-game mark, sitting just seven points behind the division-leading Washington Capitals. Now, the Isles look set to challenge in the playoffs, if their form holds, and may even be the dark horse of the postseason.
Heroes of the season so far
When Buffalo Sabres castaway Robin Lehner was picked up by the Isles in the free agency, a somewhat calamitous tandem looked to be taking place with the newly acquired goalie and Thomas Griess. But, with 21 starts under his belt – and his teammate starting 22 by the 43-game mark – Lehner leads the NHL in goals against average at 2.21, as well as boasting a very healthy .926 save percentage.
As shown by the New York Post, Lehner continues to dominate games when given the crease, being the difference maker on many occasions. He has endured many troubles to make it to this stage, but the Islanders have certainly been rewarded for putting their faith in the 27-year-old Swede. He might have been selected for the 2019 All-Star Games if the rules didn’t dictate that each team must be represented, with Henrik Lundqvist coming in as the sole selection from the New York Rangers.
Speaking of All-Stars, 21-year-old Mathew Barzal has been living up to the promise of his immense talent, scoring 13 goals and 41 points to lead the team through 43 games. Despite enduring an early dry spell, Barzal has been able to recoup his goal-scoring knack to earn a place in the Metropolitan Division’s All-Star team. Other players like Josh Bailey and Brock Nelson have also been able to step up and help their team, but Barzal is proving himself to be the top-class player that the team can build around in the years to come.
Islanders could capitalize on inconsistency and emerging storylines
While the New York Rangers are looking to bolster their healthy-looking prospect pool, as are the New Jersey Devils and, surprisingly, the Philadelphia Flyers, the other five Metropolitan Division teams all appear to have what it takes to claim a playoff place. As of January 13th, 12 points split the Washington Capitals and Carolina Hurricanes, with the Islanders then sitting in a wildcard place just seven points down on the leading Caps and with a game in hand.
As has been proven this season already, in the Metro, a swing of good form can vault a team back into postseason contention. Even though they are still playing great hockey, the Washington Capitals were only at +150 to win the division with Betway, as of January 13th, with the Pittsburgh Penguins at +200, the Columbus Blue Jackets at +240, and the Islanders at +800. Given the points difference, perhaps the Islanders shouldn’t be so far back in the ratings.
SB Nation has been keen to credit the resurgence of the Penguins to Sidney Crosby’s return to top form, as well as fellow superstar Evgeni Malkin stepping up. Pittsburgh has surged back up the standings after starting with only seven wins in 19 games, but if their star players were to cool off again, they might find themselves slipping.
The division-leading Capitals don’t appear to be showing any signs of a Stanley Cup hangover, which captain Alex Ovechkin has certainly been able to dismiss on the ice and in interview, as shown by the Washington Post. Having undergone only five losing streaks this season, only one of which surpassed two games, their consistency will keep the Caps near the top until the end of the regular season.
The biggest story in the Metropolitan Division as the trade deadline approaches is what the Columbus Blue Jackets will do with their impending free agents. Top point scorer Artemi Panarin, who had 48 points through 42 games, and stud goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky will both be UFAs this summer. While outlets like The Hockey News think that the Blue Jackets should hold onto them both, push for the Stanley Cup, and then lose them for nothing at the end of the season, if they were to trade them by February 25th.
The New York Islanders are playing tough-to-beat hockey right now, and don’t look to be going anywhere: they could also add some reinforcements at the trade deadline. If they can stay consistent and capitalize on any slip-ups from the Penguins or Blue Jackets, should they occur, the Islanders could find themselves in high standing in the division come game 82. From there, they’ll certainly be in with a chance of stifling a team or two in the postseason.