There it was, that word that is so overused it has started to lose meaning. But the most encouraging thing for the Islanders is not just that they’re the hottest team in the league but that the culture around the organization is changing — if not changed for good.
“The team, I think they’re believing,” coach Barry Trotz said after Monday’s practice, his club having won six in a row and nine of 10 heading into Tuesday night’s Coliseum match against the Hurricanes. “Let’s stay current, if you will. Let’s stay in the moment. And we have. I think for the most part, they believe they can win every game or go into every game and find a way to win. That’s part of creating a winning culture. That’s starting to take roots.”
The game against Carolina will be the official halfway mark of the season, and the Islanders (23-13-4) were sitting in a wild-card position — either first or second, depending on the outcome of the Canadiens game with the Wild on Monday night. It should make for an interesting home-and-home with the Rangers this week, as well.
The turnaround has been drastic. Everyone knew Trotz was a great coach, having just won a Stanley Cup with the Capitals. But it would have been hard to predict him in the conversation for a mid-season Jack Adams Award. And everyone knew team president Lou Lamoriello ran a tight ship. But it would have been hard to predict just how precisely the players have taken to his buttoned-up leadership.
It has led to a team that plays systemically sound hockey and is committed just about every night. That is, except for Saturday night in St. Louis, when a 4-3 win over the Blues was stolen by way of another terrific performance from emerging No. 1 goalie Robin Lehner.
“I felt like we should have had ski masks getting on the plane,” Trotz said. “But that’s going to happen in this league. That’s why your goaltender can be your difference-maker.”
Lehner was named the league’s No. 3 star of the week, having won all three games he started while putting up a 1.99 goals-against average and a .935 save percentage. The 27-year-old Swede has won seven straight decisions and has allowed 13 goals over his last 10 games, with a 1.34 goals-against average and .952 save percentage during that stretch.
“Team does good and individual success happens also,” Lehner said. “I’m just happy we’re winning right now, to be honest. Every win right now feels incredible, so we just have to keep winning.”
Lehner has been Lamoriello’s biggest success story, having signed the veteran to a one-year, $1.5 million deal this summer. Lehner was open about having dealt with mental health issues and substance abuse in his past, but he got help and is now joined with Thomas Greiss to give the Islanders some much-needed stability in nets. Their combined five-on-five save percentage of .935 is the third-best in the league.
“Going into the season, we didn’t know where our goaltending would be,” Trotz said. “We knew Robin, all the issues that he had in terms of what he was dealing with, we knew he could play. We knew both goaltenders could play, but could they play at a top level? And they have for us. Both of them. That’s given us a chance most nights.”
Defenseman Devon Toews has come up and been the stud they expected, while Josh Ho-Sang let his talent do the talking rather than his mouth once he got up here. Mat Barzal followed up his Calder Trophy-winning season with a deserved All-Star nod, while Josh Bailey is showing he was not just a product of being John Tavares’ linemate.
Ah, but who remembers Tavares anyway? This team has moved on in as big a way as possible — through a new culture that is currently producing wins by the bushel.
“I think we’re dealing with it — and it’s my job to keep us current and realistic about how hard you have to work,” Trotz said. “Winning is not easy.”
Just so happens that right now, his team is making the opposite look true.