NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Thursday night’s matchup between the New York Islanders and Chicago Blackhawks with coverage beginning at 6:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.
The Islanders have been one of the biggest surprises in the NHL this season. After losing John Tavares to the Toronto Maple Leafs in free agency, expectations around the Isles were fairly low. But through 38 games, New York is only one point out of a Wild Card spot (they have two games in hand on Montreal) and three points behind Columbus for third place in the Metropolitan Division. Not bad, not bad at all.
They’re coming into this game red-hot, as they’ve won four games in a row and seven of their last eight. So, how have they done this? There’s a few reasons, but it’s tough to ignore the job that new head coach Barry Trotz has done this season. Trotz is coming off his first Stanley Cup Championship with the Washington Capitals, but he decided to jump ship for the Isles. He was able to pass legendary Islanders coach Al Arbour for career wins (783) in his team’s latest victory.
“You get into coaching, you talk about certain names that you have respect for,” said Trotz. “When you hear someone say, ‘Hey, you and Al Arbour,’ I feel a little out of place. It’s a total honor to be even mentioned.”
Another newcomer, Robin Lehner, has been a huge difference-maker, as well. The 27-year-old has a 9-6-3 record with a 2.14 goals-against-average and a .930 save percentage this season. Lehner’s battle with addictions has been well-documented, so everyone in the hockey world is happy to see him succeed.
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“I’ve had some players who have had situations where they were in a bad place and [now] they’ve got their life around them,” said Trotz. “I know how difficult it is for players who have to make life changes and if they don’t they die. It ruins their life [if they don’t] … to me, when you get the player in a good place, the player can have success, but more importantly a real productive life and that’s why I’m real proud of Robin. From the situation he was in to where he is now is a game changer, not only for him, but for us.”
As for the ‘Hawks, they’re coming off a loss to the Boston Bruins in the Winter Classic. It’s been a disappointing year for an aging Chicago team. They have just 36 points through 42 games, which puts them in 13th in the Western Conference. They’re nine points out of the final Wild Card spot and 10 points away from third in the Central Division.
“We have our compass set right, as far as what works for us and what our team game’s supposed to look like, and we’re building on that consistency,” captain Jonathan Toews said after the Winter-Classic loss. “That’s huge for us. And some nights, pucks aren’t going to go in, or you’re not going to get the two points or the results you want. But if we keep doing things right, we just keep upping the odds of (winning) every night.”
24-year-old netminder Collin Delia has been one of the bright spots for Chicago of late. He’s won each of his three starts this season and he’s given up two goals or fewer in those outings.
And here’s a fun fact for you: Nobody enjoys playing the Islanders more than Patrick Kane. The 30-year-old has 10 goals and 10 assists in 14 career games against the Islanders.
Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.