What has changed for the Islanders in the playoffs?

The NHL postseason has produced its share of unexpected results, but one of the more overlooked surprises might be the early domination from the Islanders.

They have won six of their first seven games overall and enter Tuesday’s Game 4 (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN; livestream) against the Capitals with a chance to complete a four-game sweep.

It is not so much the fact the Islanders are having success that is the surprising development here.

It is the way they ended up getting to this point and the way they are systematically shutting down the Capitals. This has been a complete 180 switch from what we saw from them during the stretch run of the regular season and another dramatic swing in a season that has been full of them for New York.

When the 2019-20 season began expectations for the Islanders were mixed. On one hand, they were a playoff team a year ago, had swept the Penguins in the First Round, and still have one of the league’s best coaches in Barry Trotz. But there was also a school of thought that they could be due for a regression because their underlying numbers were not particularly strong and a lot of their success seemed to be goaltender driven.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

They seemed to settle the debate early in the season when they went on a 15-0-2 run to climb to the top of the Eastern Conference standings. But that would prove to be the high point of their season as they completely went in the tank after that. Their underlying numbers were still mostly lousy, and once their 17-game point streak ended on Nov. 25 they finished the regular season with a 19-20-8 record over the next 47 games. That included a horrific 2-7-4 stretch to finish the season with a seven-game losing streak. It was a sinking ship going nowhere.

Now? They easily dismissed the Panthers in the Qualifying Round and have spent the first three games against the Capitals rendering their offense completely useless. They are not just beating them, they are breaking them.

So what’s changed?

Let’s start with the fact they managed to get some players back in the lineup due to the season pause, with the most significant of them being defenseman Adam Pelech.

When he went down in late December the Islanders viewed that as a potentially devastating blow to their defense, and the results afterwards seemed to back that up. He may not be a household name around the league but he is one of their best defenders and they had nobody to fill that spot in their top-four. Along with him, their forward depth is significantly better now with the returns of Casey Cizikas, Leo Komarov, and the trade deadline addition of Jean-Gabriel Pageau (who has been great in the playoffs) from the Senators. None of them are offensive superstars, but they fit the Islanders’ defensive style of play.

Goaltending helps as well. A lot of the Islanders’ success a year ago was built on the foundation in net that had been set by Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss. But after December 1 there was a noticeable dip in the play from Greiss and his new platoon partner Semyon Varlamov. Over the their final 44 games of the regular season their 5-on-5 save percentage of .914 was 23rd in the NHL, while their all-situations mark of .904 was 19th. When your team is getting cratered in the shot chart and getting below average goaltending it is going to produce a really bad result. And it did exactly that for the Islanders. In the playoffs, though, the Islanders are not only shutting down the Capitals systematically, Varlamov has been great the entire postseason and solidified the spot.

In the end, you can not say enough about how much the Islanders have completely controlled the first three games of this series. This might be some of the best hockey they have played over the past two years at any point (including the 15-0-2 run earlier this season) because they are not only winning, but they are actually playing the way they are perceived to play. Even when they had success these past two seasons it has not always been the most impressive style of play. They give up shots, they give up chances, they lean on their goalies to bail them out, they wait for you to make a mistake then they pounce it.

This, however, is not that style of hockey. This is legit shutdown hockey that has seen the Islanders take one of the best rosters in the league in Washington and completely crush it. This is the team the Islanders have been perceived to be.

No. 3 Washington Capitals vs. No. 6 New York Islanders (NYI lead 3-0)

Wednesday, Aug. 12: Islanders 4, Capitals 2 (recap)
Friday, Aug. 14: Islanders 5, Capitals 2 (recap)
Sunday, Aug. 16: Islanders 2, Capitals 1 (OT) (recap)
Tuesday, Aug. 18: Washington at NY Islanders, 8 p.m. ET – NBCSN (livestream)
*Thursday, Aug. 20: NY Islanders at Washington – TBD
*Saturday, Aug. 22: Washington at NY Islanders – TBD
*Sunday, Aug. 23: NY Islanders at Washington – TBD

MORE:
• Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

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