After a 5-2 loss in Carolina on October 11th, the Islanders were 1-3 and had given up ten goals over back to back losses. But since that time, the Islanders (5-3 10 points) have racked up four straight wins heading into Thursday night’s game with the Arizona Coyotes at Nassau Coliseum. The Islanders are still not completely on top of their game and they have a couple of injuries that they’re dealing with, but things are certainly headed in the right direction.
What they’ve been able to do is to get back to what they do best and that is working hard, playing a strong defensive game, and coming up with big plays at the right time including Brock Nelson’s overtime goal in Columbus this past Saturday. The 3-2 win over the Blue Jackets sent the Isles into a four-day break from games feeling pretty good about themselves.
“I think we’ve done a good job of getting back to our identity a little bit and playing more of the Islander hockey that’s made us successful in the past,” said Islanders Captain Anders Lee. “Those first four games…I don’t think we were really there. We’ve figured it out now, for the most part, and obviously you can always continue to build but the last four games, whether it’s been a good night or a bad night, we found a way to win.”
The four-game winning streak started with a 3-2 shootout win over Florida at the Coliseum on October 12th. That was followed two days later with a miracle 3-2 overtime win on home ice over the Stanley Cup Champion Blues, a game that the Islanders trailed 2-0 with less than six minutes to play. In that game, Islanders defenseman Johnny Boychuck made a great play keeping the puck in at the blueline to set up Mat Barzal’s game-tying goal with 27 seconds left in regulation.
So, what’s been the key to the Islanders’ turnaround?
“I think just playing our game,” said Boychuck. “Sometimes you play good and you get those losses and sometimes you play bad and you get wins so things always come around that way. I think being more disciplined and getting pucks in deep at the right times…before we were just trying to do too much and turning the puck over and losing.”
The Islanders are hoping to keep their winning ways going on Thursday night but it won’t be easy against an Arizona team that has also won four games in a row including Tuesday night’s 3-2 overtime win over the Rangers at Madison Square Garden. The Coyotes are a pretty deep team paced by leading scorer Nick Schmaltz (3 goals, 6 assists and 9 points) as well as goalie Darcy Keumper (4-2 1.68 GAA).
Arizona has four solid lines so the Islanders will have to bring their “A” game to the Coliseum.
“(The Coyotes) have a really good team,” said Lee. “They move the puck really well, they’re a fast team, and they’re all over you on the forecheck so we have a pretty big task at hand with them coming into our building and facing a team that’s playing some pretty good hockey right now.”
The Islanders will have their hands full with the likes of forwards Christian Dvorak (4 goals, 1 assist and 5 points), Phil Kessel (2 goals, 2 assists and 4 points) and Carl Soderberg (2 goals, 4 assists and 6 points). The ‘Yotes have a solid group of defensemen led by Alex Goligoski (1 goal, 5 assists and 6 points) and Oliver Ekman-Larsson (1 goal, 3 assists and 4 points).
Thursday shapes up as quite a challenge for the Islanders if they are to stretch their winning streak to five games.
“(The Coyotes are) a really quick team,” said Islanders Head Coach Barry Trotz. “They are on top of you. All four lines come at you. They don’t give you much time and space. They half-ice you and they put you under duress the whole time. They don’t take the foot off the pedal. They come at you real hard and they’re playing with a lot of confidence. They play a 200-foot game. I just watched them (Tuesday) night and I was thoroughly impressed with how well they played.”
The Islanders have been able to string together some wins despite not being whole at all this season. They could be welcoming forward Casey Cizikas back to the lineup Thursday night after he practiced for a second straight day on Wednesday. Jordan Eberle remains on the injured list and so does Andrew Ladd who has returned to full contact practice and his return might not be far away.
What has made the Islanders a fascinating watch has been the implementation to 2018 first round picks Oliver Wahlstrom and Noah Dobson to the mix and a red-hot start to the season from Mat Barzal. What the Islanders have turned out to be, at the moment, is the best professional sports team in the area when you factor in the NHL and NFL locals. As the NBA season tips off this week, the Nets are expected to be pretty good this season while the Knicks…are the Knicks.
But as for right now, the Islanders would be the only local team that has a winning record.
“I think it’s just one of those things where we show up and take pride in what we’re doing and put together our best foot forward and try to win hockey games,” said Lee. “We’re on a good little week and a half here but it’s obviously early and we can’t take anything for granted. We have to keep building and growing.”
It’s still very early in the season, but the Islanders are starting to get things in order even though they’re not at full strength and still have some holes in their game. The feeling around the team has certainly been better the couple of weeks after a slow start, but the Isles do face a pretty stiff challenge from Arizona at The Barn on Thursday.