The Islanders are a playoff contender through half of their season and at least two-thirds of the 31-team NHL can make the same claim. The ultimate goal for every franchise, and one so few attain, is to become a legitimate year-to-year Stanley Cup challenger.
Coach Barry Trotz knows exactly how hard that feat is and holds a realistic opinion of how far away the Islanders might be from attaining it.
He led the expansion Predators to the playoffs in seven of his 15 seasons in Nashville but only advanced to the second round twice. Then, he guided the Capitals to their first Cup in 2018, the culmination of his four seasons in Washington that included second-round playoff losses the first three seasons.
“We have to get to the final level where we’re in the playoffs year in and year out and grow to be a contender down the road,” Trotz said. “There’s still lots of work. We’re probably a year or two away.”
The most obvious sign of the Islanders’ improvement under Trotz is how they’ve cut down on their goals against, a combination of better goaltending from Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss and a more structured defensive system that, when it’s working, keeps play to the outside and limits rebounds.
The Islanders allowed 293 goals last season, the most in the league since 2007. Their 114 goals allowed through 42 games was tied with the Bruins for the best in the NHL and there are 10 forwards on the current roster, six defensemen and Greiss, who saw regular playing time for the Islanders last season.
“I knew we’d be better defensively just because I knew we could be with the personnel,”Trotz said. “(But) I think that’s a little higher than expected.”
Here is Trotz’s breakdown on specific areas of the Islanders game:
Five-on-five scoring (their 90 five-on-five goals through 42 games ranked 12th in the NHL): “I figured we’d be able to do that and I think that’s been a strength of ours.”
The power play (their 21-for-124 (16.9 percent) through 42 games ranked 22nd in the NHL): “It’s probably down a little bit from what I thought it could be.”
The penalty kill (their 95-for-123 (77.2 percent) through 42 games ranked 25th in the NHL after it was last in the league last season): “I knew it was better and it is better.”
Goaltending (Lehner was second in the league with a 2.22 goals-against average and second with a .926 save percentage through 42 games): “It’s probably a little bit better than I expected.”
Trotz clearly sees a team trending the right way. But he’s also keenly aware there’s a long upward arc to get to where he wants to lead the franchise.
Making the most
The Islanders play three straight games at Barclays Center — Saturday against the Rangers, Sunday against the Lightning and Tuesday against the Blues — for the last time this season and, after that stretch, have just three more regular-season games scheduled in Brooklyn.
They are 7-5-2 at Barclays and 3-1-1 at the Coliseum, where they will play their final 12 home games starting on Feb. 26.
“There is a difference and we’d be lying to ourselves if we said there wasn’t,” captain Anders Lee said. “But we’re professionals. This is what we deal with. We handle it and we go play hockey. We can’t control where we play and what Tuesday night game is where. The tough side of that with the different environments is the crowd can save you on some nights. When you’re struggling, they can save you.”
The Islanders averaged 13,795 in their first five games back at the Coliseum, with three sellouts of 13,917. Their attendance through their first 14 games at Barclays, which has a capacity of 15,795 for hockey, was 10,476 with no sellouts.
“It is what it is,” defenseman Ryan Pulock said. “The energy at the Coliseum has been electric and something we can feed off of. Sometimes at Barclays we have to create that energy ourselves. It’s still one of our home buildings. I think we’re still comfortable playing there.”
Left wing Matt Martin played in his 600th NHL regular-season game in Tuesday’s 4-3 loss to the Hurricanes at the Coliseum. He listed his 100th and 500th games as “big ones” but admitted he couldn’t remember his 500th game. For the record, it came while he was with the Maple Leafs in a 3-1 loss at San Jose on Feb. 28, 2017.
“Each time you hit another hundred it’s certainly a milestone,” Martin said. “Hopefully, I still have a lot of hockey left in the tank.”
Lehner’s solid run
Robin Lehner is on pace to have one of the better seasons for an Islanders’ netminder. Here are team’s three best goals-against averages and save percentages for goalies who have played at least 20 games in a season:
2.07 – Glenn “Chico” Resch, 1975-76
2.28 – Glenn “Chico” Resch, 1976-77
2.30 – Jaroslav Halak, 2015-16
.928 – Glenn “Chico” Resch, 1975-76
.925 – Thomas Greiss, 2015-16
.921 – Al Montoya, 2010-11