Contender or pretender: Perfectly imperfect Islanders can ruin your postseason dreams

As the NHL season reaches the halfway point of the 2020-21 season we are taking a closer look each week at teams that are right on the line between being a Stanley Cup contender or a Stanley Cup pretender. Today we examine the New York Islanders. 

Every year there is always a list of reasons to doubt the Islanders.

They do not score enough goals.

Their possession numbers are not great and they tend to give up a lot of shots.

They are not overly exciting and do not have a lot of star power or impact players beyond Mathew Barzal.

Yet every year you look up at the standings and see that they have won 10 games in a row, go 14-15 games without losing in regulation, get into the playoffs, and then knock off a team that appears more talented on paper with relative ease. Ever since the hiring of Barry Trotz the organization has gone from being the nail to being the hammer come playoff time. During the first two years of the Trotz era they’ve already won more playoff games (14) and playoff series (three) than they did in the two decades prior to that.

[More: Your 2020-21 NHL On NBC TV Schedule]

Two years ago they stunned everybody by winning more games without John Tavares than they did with him, going from being the worst defensive team in the league to being the best, and swept what looked to be a more talented Penguins team. A year ago they brushed aside concerns that the 2018-19 performance was a fluke and easily dispatched Washington and Philadelphia rosters that, again, looked superior on paper.

If you are a playoff hopeful one of the last things you should want to see is Barry Trotz standing behind the opposing bench, smiling politely as he waits to grind your team’s offense to dust.

Their strength is defense

As of Monday, the Islanders are allowing a league-low 2.22 goals per game. They were ninth best in that category a year ago and first two years ago. What makes that consistent performance so stunning is that when you look at the roster on paper, especially on defense, it does not really stand out. The defense does not have a Victor Hedman, or Alex Pietrangelo, or Cale Makar, and Miro Heiskanen, or that one player you think of as a Norris-caliber No. 1 defender.

But there also is not any real weakness. There is not really a pairing or player that another team can target every game and say “that is the player we are going to exploit.” Sometimes that is just as important as having the Norris contender. It only takes one weak link to bring the whole thing to a halt. Basically it is a team full of No. 2-5 defenders. Nobody that is a superstar, but also nobody that is out of place on a contending team.

Defense is also a team effort that goes beyond the blue line.

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The Islanders have been blessed the past couple of years with outstanding goaltending, whether it was Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss, or Greiss and Semyon Varlamov, or their current duo of Varlamov and future star Ilya Sorokin. That helps mask a lot of shortcomings.

They also have a solid group of responsible forwards that was strengthened at the trade deadline a year ago with the addition (and re-signing) of Jean-Gabriel Pageau.

At the halfway point of the seasons the Islanders rank in the top-five league wide in shots on goal against, expected goals goals against, scoring chances against, high-danger scoring chances against, and goals against per 60 minutes during 5-on-5 play, while also being a top-10 penalty killing team. Perhaps even more important than that is the fact they are also one of the least penalized teams in the league, meaning they are rarely having to play shorthanded.

Those questions do still exist though

The biggest question is, again, going to revolve around whether or not they can score enough goals. That is going to be an even bigger question without Anders Lee, one of their top offensive players, whose season is now over.

Is there a trade to be made? Or can somebody else on the roster step up to fill that void, whether it be a young player waiting for a bigger opportunity (Kieffer Bellows, Oliver Wahlstrom?) or a veteran player that needs a breakout (Anthony Beauvillier?).

There is also the fact they have feasted this season on the unbalanced divisional schedule and racked up a ton of wins early on against Buffalo, New Jersey, and the Rangers, the three rebuilding teams in the division. Against that trio the Islanders are 12-2-0 with a plus-21 goal differential. Against Pittsburgh, Boston, Washington, and Philadelphia they are 8-6-4 with a plus-2 goal differential.

(It is worth noting the latter group of numbers does include a 4-0 record against Boston. It is Pittsburgh, Washington, and Philadelphia that have given them issues, and the second half of their schedule sees them play a lot of games against Boston, Washington, and Philadelphia.)

There was also a fairly noticeable gap between them and Tampa in the Eastern Conference Final a year ago. Some of those games may have been close on the scoreboard, but it was clear which team was better. What would prevent that from happening again this season?

Contender Or Pretender

Maybe this is hedging a bit, but they are clearly better than a pretender and could easily beat the vast majority of the league’s teams in a best-of-seven series.

But there is reason to believe they are not quite on the same level as the top-three or-four contenders.

They are almost certainly going to make the playoffs.

There is a very real chance (maybe even a great chance!) they will go on another run and beat or one or two of whatever East Division teams they play.

But are they good enough to beat a Tampa Bay, or a Vegas, or a Colorado, or maybe even a Carolina in a best-of-seven series like they will almost certainly have to do to lift the Stanley Cup? That remains to be seen. Call them a contender, but maybe one that is a step below behind the top three or four best teams that should be considered the biggest Stanley Cup favorites.

(Data in this post via Natural Stat Trick)

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

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    Mitch Marner extends Maple Leafs-record points streak to 21 games

    Mitch Marner
    USA Today

    TORONTO — Mitch Marner extended his franchise-record points streak to 21 games with a second-period goal and the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Los Angeles Kings 5-0 on Thursday night.

    Marner gave Toronto a 4-0 lead with his 11th goal of the season, scoring on a slap shot after a Los Angeles turnover inside its blue line.

    Marner became the 10th player in the past 35 years to string together a streak of 21 or more games. He has 10 goals and 16 assists during the run.

    Auston Matthews, Pierre Engvall, David Kampf and William Nylander also scored for Toronto. Ilya Samsonov made 29 saves for his first shutout with the Maple Leafs and the seventh of his career.

    Toronto has won seven of eight to improve to 17-5-6.

    Los Angeles dropped to 14-11-4 with its seventh loss in 10 games. Kings goalie Jonathan Quick made 36 saves.

    Penguins’ Kris Letang returns to practice 10 days after stroke

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    PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang returned to practice with his teammates just 10 days after suffering the second stroke of his career.

    The 35-year-old Letang remains out indefinitely, with the club describing him as “day to day.”

    Letang said he felt “pretty good” after being greeted by stick taps from his teammates when he skated onto the ice at the team’s practice facility. Still, the married father of two called the experience “scary,” particularly for his family.

    “My kids, they don’t care if I’m a hockey player or not,” he said. “They care about having a dad. Same with my wife. She could care less about hockey. She knows there’s so much more. After hockey, there’s a long time and you want to be able to enjoy those moments with your family, with your kids.”

    Letang missed more than two months in 2014 after his first stroke, which was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. The condition also led to the second stroke, which Letang suffered on Nov. 28 after dealing with a series of debilitating headaches.

    This time, the symptoms have resolved themselves much more quickly, according to team physician Dr. Dharmesh Vyas, who described this stroke as “smaller” than the one Letang endured in 2014.

    Letang began skating on his own just two days after the diagnosis and was cleared to return to practice on Thursday though both Letang and Vyas stressed they are in no rush for him to play in games.

    “We don’t think this is accelerated in any way,” Vyas said. “We are taking all the right precautions to make sure that it is safe to go out and play and when that time comes we’ll let him go back to playing his sport.”

    Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said it was a “relief” to see Letang back at work.

    “It’s a great visual that he’s making progress,” Sullivan said. “Our medical team that has monitored him extremely closely feels comfortable with some of the progress that he’s making and the steps he’s taken. Everyone was excited for him to join the group.”

    Letang signed a six-year contract extension over the summer that will carry him into his 40s if he decides to play that long. Vyas said the data around strokes is “evolving” though it is unclear if Letang is now more susceptible to having additional strokes now that he’s had a second one.

    The six-time All-Star is cautious but optimistic.

    “We’ve been through this,” Letang said. “Me and Dharmesh have a clear understanding that we’re going to take all the time we need and make sure the research is possible and it’s no danger for me to keep going.”

    The Penguins are 8-1-1 over their last 10 games and have won three straight heading into a home-and-home series with the Sabres. They’re also eager to have Letang’s familiar No. 58 back in the lineup, but only when he’s ready.

    “He’s been here for a long time and his experience and everything that he brings on and off the ice, the way he competes (is important),” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “But I think in the (locker) room, (he has) poise and (he’s) somebody who’s been around a long time and whose experience you feel when he’s around.”

    Thompson nets 4 in 1st, 5 overall, as Buffalo tops Columbus

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    Russell LaBounty/USA TODAY Sports
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    COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tage Thompson matched an NHL record by scoring four times in the first period and finished with five goals and an assist as the Buffalo Sabres won their third straight road game, 9-4 over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night.

    Thompson is the second U.S.-born player to score five goals in a game. He is the fourth player in NHL history to record four goals in the first period of a regular-season game, joining Peter Bondra (1994), Grant Mulvey (1982) and Joe Malone (1921). He is also the fourth active player to score five goals in a game, joining Timo Meier (Jan. 17, 2022), Mika Zibanejad (March 5, 2020) and Patrik Laine (Nov. 24, 2018).

    “It’s definitely a rewarding feeling,” Thompson said. “You’ve spent a lot of years working to get to this point and to be rewarded for it is a pretty good feeling and it just leaves you hungrier.”

    Thompson’s outburst helped Buffalo score six times in the first 16:40.

    “That was an amazing performance by Tage, and really, the whole group set the table,” Sabres coach Don Granato said. “I thought the energy, the collective effort, the focus to start was really good and enabled that to happen.”

    Alex Tuch had a goal and three assists, Dylan Cozens added a power-play goal and two assists and Rasmus Dahlin finished with a goal and two assists. Peyton Krebs also scored. Jeff Skinner picked up four assists and Jacob Bryson had two. Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen stopped 20 shots.

    Patrik Laine and Gustav Nyquist each scored twice for Columbus.

    Joonas Korpisalo stopped two shots before being pulled in the first in favor of Elvis Merzlikins, who stopped 15 shots through the second period. Korpisalo returned in the third and finished with six saves.

    Columbus has lost six straight home games and five of its last six overall.

    “We didn’t have an answer for that one line,” Blue Jackets coach Brad Larsen said. “Tage Thompson just tore us up tonight.”

    Buffalo dominated from the puck drop, scoring four goals on its first six shots.

    Cozens put the Sabres on the board at 3:21 of the first, 53 seconds into a Blue Jackets penalty, and Thompson made it 2-0 just 2:09 later. Dahlin scored Buffalo’s third goal at 7:28 of the first, driving Korpisalo from the net in favor of Merzlikins, who gave up Buffalo goal No. 4 to Thompson 32 seconds later.

    Thompson’s third career hat trick and second of the season came on a power-play goal at 12:22 of the first. He followed with his fourth goal, also on the power play, at 16:40.

    Columbus scored two goals in just over a minute, with Laine at 10:49 and Nyquist at 12:04, before Buffalo reeled off three straight in just over three minutes to end the period, including Thompson’s fifth, and goals by Krebs and Tuch.

    Laine and Nyquist scored in the third period for Columbus.


    Cozens has 12 points in his last five games and is riding a career-best, five-game point streak. Thompson has eight goals and five assists in his last five games and 10 multi-point games. Dahlin has a five-game point and assist streak, and Gaudreau stretched his points streak to six games.

    NOTES: The Sabres joined the Kraken as the second team this season to score nine goals in a game. … Thompson is the second player in Buffalo history to have five goals in a game, joining Dave Andreychuk, who had five goals and an assist on Feb. 6, 1986.


    Buffalo: Hosts Pittsburgh on Friday.

    Columbus: Hosts Calgary on Friday.

    Ovechkin, Strome lead Capitals past struggling Flyers 4-1

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    Eric Hartline/USA TODAY Sports

    PHILADELPHIA — Alex Ovechkin scored two empty-net goals, Dylan Strome had a goal and an assist and the Washington Capitals defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-1 on Wednesday night.

    T.J. Oshie also scored for the Capitals, who finished 3-3 on a six-game trip. Charlie Lindgren made 29 saves.

    Kevin Hayes scored for Philadelphia, which has lost 13 of 15 games. Carter Hart made 23 stops.

    Strome broke a 1-all tie with 10:41 remaining when he deflected John Carlson‘s shot from long range past Hart.

    Hayes had a golden opportunity to tie it on a Philadelphia power play, but Lindgren made a great right pad save on a try from close range with 8:20 remaining.

    Ovechkin iced it, scoring into an empty net with 1:35 left and adding another empty-netter with 8.2 seconds left for his 15th of the season. Ovechkin has 795 career goals, good for third all-time. He is six goals away from tying Gordie Howe for second place. Wayne Gretzky, with 894 goals, tops the list.

    Hayes scored his ninth goal of the season for his team-leading 28th point with 4:14 left in the first period to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Hayes rushed to the bench after breaking his stick on a slap shot attempt, and scored on a wrist shot from the high slot with his new stick.

    The Flyers had a power-play goal for the third straight game and have four overall in that stretch. Philadelphia, which began play ranked 30th in the NHL in scoring on the man advantage, now has converted 16.7% (14 of 84) of its chances.

    Oshie tied it 3:51 into the second on the Capitals’ fourth power play as the Flyers continued to take sloppy penalties. This time, James van Riemsdyk committed Philadelphia’s third tripping minor of the game. Oshie made them pay with his fifth goal of the season when he finished a nifty passing sequence with Strome and Evgeny Kuznetsov with a perfectly placed one-timer over Hart’s left shoulder.

    NOTES: Van Riemsdyk returned after missing the last 20 games due to a broken right index finger. . Flyers forward Tanner Laczynski was placed on injured reserve after departing midway through the third period of Monday’s 5-3 win over Colorado with what looked like an injury to his left leg. . Washington was without several injured players, including starting goalie Darcy Kuemper (upper body). Kuemper was with the team, but missed his second in a row. . Carlson had two assists. . Philadelphia’s Cam Atkinson, out all season with an upper body injury, has been practicing and is close to returning.


    Capitals: Host Seattle on Friday night.

    Flyers: Open four-game trip at Vegas on Friday night.