Islanders already on track for some history

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As the smoke from burning John Tavares sweaters plumed into the clouds across Long Island last July, nobody, not even the most optimistic and ardent Islanders supporter, would have predicted this.

Here in mid-February, the Tavares-less New York Islanders sit atop the Metropolitan Division and in second place overall in the Eastern Conference. Barry Trotz is without question the front-runner for the Jack Adams Award and the team could very well be hosting playoff games in April. So how have the Islanders gotten it done?

One of the best stories in the league has been the resurgence of Robin Lehner, who publicly discussed his struggles with mental health earlier in the season. Lehner has gone 13-2-1 since mid-December and leads the NHL in both save percentage (.930) and goals against average (2.05). Any idea who ranks second in both categories? That would be the Isles’ other goaltender Thomas Greiss (.927 SV%, 2.28 GAA). Only once in the Expansion Era (since 1967-68) has a goalie tandem finished first and second in both categories. That would be Hall of Famers Jacques Plante and Glenn Hall, who did so for the 1968-69 St. Louis Blues.

Of course, the defense in front of both goaltenders has been exceptional. Last season, the Islanders gave up a league-worst 293 goals, which was the most allowed by any team since the Flyers surrendered 297 in in 2006-07. That Flyers team finished last in the NHL with just 56 points. This year, the Islanders have allowed only 128 goals, the fewest in the league. For perspective, only once in NHL history has a team had the most goals allowed followed by the fewest goals allowed the following season. It happened over 100 years ago around World War I, when the 1917-18 Ottawa Senators (114 GA) turned things around in 1918-19 (53 GA). Who could forget that?

Another surprising aspect of this year’s Islanders club has been the team’s depth at center, especially after Tavares walked in free agency. Mathew Barzal (48 points), Brock Nelson (36), Valtteri Filppula (22) and Casey Cizikas (22) have combined for 128 points and 56 goals. Production from Barzal, who won the Calder Trophy last season with 85 points, was to be expected. But Nelson is on pace for a career-high 53 points and has already exceeded his 35 from last season. Cizikas, meanwhile, already has a career-best 12 goals on the fourth line and Filppula is on track for 33 points for the second consecutive year.

The Islanders have one other peculiar chance at history, as they are an unblemished 9-0-0 in the second half of back-to-backs. The best perfect record in the second game of back to backs is 4-0-0, by the 1935-36 Black Hawks (two words back then).

If the Isles manage to stay in the playoff picture, perhaps the most intriguing storyline of all will be where they will host their postseason games. The team has split their home games this year between Barclays Center in Brooklyn and Nassau Coliseum on Long Island. Their game against the Edmonton Oilers on Saturday will be the final one at Barclays Center during the regular season, with 12 more games still left to play at the Coliseum, where they are 6-1-2 thus far. Commissioner Gary Bettman will reportedly decide where the Isles will host their playoff games and politicians from Nassau County have petitioned him to pick the Coliseum. If the choice ends up being Long Island rather than Brooklyn, the Isles could have one of the more significant home ice advantages in the league. If you want a preview for how loud the old barn can get, tune in when the Islanders host Tavares and the Toronto Maple Leafs on February 28 and April 1. The last time Nassau Coliseum hosted a playoff game was Game 6 of the First Round in 2015, when New York defeated Trotz and the Washington Capitals 3-1. They would go on to lose Game 7 in D.C.

Still, with all of the optimism following the team this season, Islanders players do not sound satisfied. Not with 27 games left to go.

“We’re still hunting,” forward Anthony Beauvillier told Newsday. “We don’t really look back. We just want to look forward and keep rising and climbing. Early in the year, everyone doubted us. We’re trying to prove people wrong. We haven’t accomplished anything. We want to make the playoffs and have a good run. There’s a little bit more in us, I think.”

The Islanders will continue to have their doubters come playoff time, especially with the Tampa Bay Lightning in line for the Presidents’ Trophy and the championship pedigree of the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins lurking in their own division. But the Isles have a bit of their own pedigree now with Lou Lamoriello in the front office and Trotz behind the bench. Nobody thought the Vegas Golden Knights would make the Stanley Cup Final last season either. Who knows where this year’s surprising Islanders squad could wind up?

WATCH LIVE: Islanders host Blackhawks at Nassau Coliseum

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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 Blackhawks will try to rebound after yet another outdoor defeat, as the Islanders look to continue their pursuit of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

The Islanders have 44 games remaining this season, 18 of which will be played at Nassau Coliseum. The team left the Coliseum for Barclays Center at the end of the 2014-15 season. They plan to move into a new facility at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York, for the start of the 2021-22 season.

The Islanders have been one of the biggest surprises in the Eastern Conference and are very much alive in the playoff race. New York has won of seven of their last eight games, including four straight.

There’s been no sophomore slump for Mathew Barzal, who took home the Calder Trophy last season behind 85 points and 63 assists, which were fifth most in the league. He has been particularly hot lately, riding a five-game point streak (6G, 3A).

Meanwhile, Chicago has scored first in eight of their past 10 games, after allowing the first goal in each of their previous 11 games.

Blackhawks head coach Jeremy Colliton was a second round draft pick by the Islanders in 2003 (by then Isles GM Mike Milbury) and played all 57 games of his NHL career in an Islanders sweater. He was also the former captain of the team’s AHL affiliate, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Chicago Blackhawks at New York Islanders
Where: Nassau Coliseum
When: Thursday, Jan. 3, 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Islanders-Blackhawks stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

BLACKHAWKS
Brandon SaadJonathan ToewsDominik Kahun
Artem AnisimovDylan StromePatrick Kane
Alex DeBrincatDavid KampfDylan Sikura
Brendan PerliniMarcus KrugerAndreas Martinsen

Duncan KeithErik Gustafsson
Gustav ForslingBrent Seabrook
Carl DahlstromConnor Murphy

Starting goalie: Collin Delia

ISLANDERS
Anthony Beauvillier – Mathew Barzal – Josh Bailey
Anders LeeBrock NelsonJosh Ho-Sang
Michael Dal Colle – Leo Komarov – Tom Kuhnhackl
Matt MartinCasey CizikasCal Clutterbuck

Nick LeddyJohnny Boychuk
Adam PelechRyan Pulock
Devon ToewsScott Mayfield

Starting goalie: Robin Lehner

The Buzzer: Point’s 91 second hat trick; Kinkaid ties NHL-lead with third shutout

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Three stars

1. Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning

Three goals in 91 seconds, all on the power play. What a night and what a way to score your first career hat trick.

Point becomes the second fastest player to score three goals on the power play after the late, great Jean Beliveau (he did it in 44 seconds back in 1955). He also now ranks sixth all-time in terms of the fastest hat-trick.

Point also shot up the goal-scoring rankings for this season, now sitting in a tie for third place with 12 goals. Oh, and the Lightning bested the Penguins 4-3 to boot.

2. Anthony Beauvillier, New York Islanders

Beauvillier scored his first career hat trick and added an assist in 7-5 Islanders win against the New York Rangers.

Beauvillier had just one goal coming into the game and no assists. His first apple of the season came on Leo Komarov‘s third-period goal, which stood as the game winner.

Perhaps Thursday’s game will get Beauvillier going again. He had 21 goals in 71 games last season but had just one tally through 16 games entering Thursday.

3. Keith Kinkaid, New Jersey Devils

The man known as ‘Blockaid’ on Twitter lived up to his handle on Thursday night, steering aside all 29 shots he faced from the Philadelphia Flyers in a 3-0 win.

Kinkaid is now tied for the NHL lead in shutouts at three with Marc-Andre Fleury. It wasn’t just a standard, run-of-the-mill night for Kinkaid, either. As you will see below, Kinkaid had to pull out a miraculous save to preserve the goose egg.

Other notable performances

  • Nikita Kucherov assisted on all three of Point’s goals.
  • Patric Hornqvist was great for the Penguins, scoring a brace and adding an assist in a losing effort.
  • Craig Anderson stopped 34-of-35 in a 2-1 win for the Ottawa Senators at home to Detroit, including shutting the door on two penalty shots within seconds of each other.
  • Michael Grabner scored his league-leading fourth shorty of the year and the 10th of the season for the Coyotes. The league record for more shorthanded goals in a season is 36. Arizona is well on their way to eclipsing that.
  • Speaking of Arizona, Darcy Kuemper was a bloody stud on Thursday, stopping 44-of-45 shots he faced — a new career high — in a 2-1 win against the Nashville Predators. Twelve of his saves came on on the penalty kill and he took a penalty himself for good measure.
  • Mikko Koivu was gifted a goal and added two helpers as the Minnesota Wild ran over the Vancouver Canucks 6-2.
  • Cary Price made 43 saves to help the Montreal Canadiens to a 3-2 win against the Calgary Flames.
  • Mitch Marner assisted on the game-winner and then put the game to bed with his sixth of the season as the Toronto Maple Leafs prevailed in a 5-3 win against the San Jose Sharks.

Highlights of the night

Kinkaid’s shutout-preserving save:

Point’s hatty:

Beauvillier’s hatty:

You always remember your first time:

Factoids

Scores

Islanders 7, Rangers 5

Devils 3, Flyers 0

Lightning 4, Penguins 3

Blue Jackets 7, Panthers 3

Senators 2, Red Wings 1

Wild 6, Canucks 2

Canadiens 3, Flames 2

Coyotes 2, Predators 1

Maple Leafs 5, Sharks 3


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

How Islanders have jumped to top of Metropolitan Division

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After they lost John Tavares in free agency, the New York Islanders kind of became an afterthought ahead of the 2018-19 season. No one expected them to be competitive this season. No one. The season is still young, but the fact that they’re in the top spot in the Metropolitan Division is remarkable, but how have they been able to pull this off?

First, the impact their goaltenders have had on the team can’t be ignored. Thomas Greiss and Robin Lehner have exceeded expectations in every way. The goalies are a big reason why the Islanders have been able to rattle off five wins in a row over division rivals like the Penguins (twice), the Flyers, the ‘Canes and Devils. Greiss has accumulated three of the five victories, while Lehner has been between the pipes for two of them. Neither one of them has allowed more than two goals in any of the last five games. That’s terrific.

Can both guys keep this up? Can the Islanders keep this going? Last week, PHT’s Adam Gretz broke down whether or not you should buy the Islanders’ fast start.

The other reason they’ve had so much success is because of the amount of balanced scoring they’ve received. Over the last five contests, Brock Nelson (four goals) Anders Lee (three), Jordan Eberle (three), Josh Bailey, Ryan Pulock, Andrew Ladd, Anthony Beauvillier, Tom Kuhnhackl, Leo Komarov, Scott Mayfield, Adam Pelech and Matt Martin all found the back of the net. That’s 12 different scorers over five games. That’s really impressive.

“I have the same mindset as the team right now,” Bailey said, per NHL.com. “I just turn the page after each game and get ready for the next one. When you get on these streaks as a team, and individually, you want to ride them for as long as you can but it’s about staying [on an] even keel, not thinking too much about it and preparing the same way you do every game.”

They’ve done all of this with a struggling Mathew Barzal. Not only has Barzal not picked up a goal in 11 consecutive games, he’s also been held point-less in three of the five games during this current winning streak.

Whether or not this group of players is good enough to keep this up remains to be seen. It’ll be interesting to see how they respond to their upcoming schedule, as they’ll play tough games against the Canadiens and Lightning this week, before closing out their quick two-game Florida trip with a game against the Panthers on Saturday night.

“When you get the results you’re looking for it adds to that confidence, and I think our staff does a great job preparing us,” added Bailey. “I think there’s a belief within our group that we can win every night, and we take the same approach every game. We’ll turn the page after this one and get ready for the next one.”

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Fantasy Hockey: 2018-19 bounce back candidates

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It happens every year. Fantasy hockey GMs draft a guy and expect a lot from him until he falls flat on his face. Oh the frustration. Well, the good news is that we’re here to tell you which of those players will bounce back in a big way in 2018-19.

Here’s the top bounce back candidates for the upcoming season:

Max Pacioretty – LW – Vegas Golden Knights

Pacioretty went into last season having scored at least 30 goals in each of his previous four seasons. Things went off the rails in a hurry in Montreal last season and it led to Pacioretty being traded to the Golden Knights. The incredible thing about Pacioretty’s production, is that it came without him ever having a top-end center. Paul Stastny isn’t necessarily a high-end center, but he’s better than anyone Pacioretty’s played with before. Don’t be surprised if the newest Golden Knight hits 35 this year.

Jonathan Drouin – C/LW – Montreal Canadiens

Drouin had an incredibly difficult first year with the Montreal Canadiens last season. Not only did he have to get used to a new team and new teammates, he also made the move from the wing to center. This preseason, the Canadiens moved him back to the wing and he looks a lot more comfortable. Don’t be surprised if the 23-year-old surpasses the 13 goals and 46 points he put up last year.

[More Fantasy: Pick up the Rotoworld Draft Guide]

Ty Rattie – W – Edmonton Oilers

Rattie comes into this season having put up 19 points in 49 career games in the NHL, but he’s getting the opportunity to play with Connor McDavid this preseason. As you’d imagine, things have gone pretty well. He picked up seven points in his first two exhibition games, so if he sticks with McDavid, there could be some serious fantasy value appeal there.

Elias Lindholm – W – Calgary Flames

Lindholm has been pretty consistent over the last four years. He’s put up between 39 and 45 points with the Hurricanes since 2014-15. Now that he’s with the Flames, he’ll have more offensive talent around, which means there should be more opportunities to pick up points as the season progresses.

Brandon Saad – W – Chicago Blackhawks

Saad had an incredibly disappointing first year back in Chicago. The 25-year-old scored just 18 goals and 35 points after hitting at least 52 points during the previous three seasons. Saad could get an extended look with Patrick Kane to open the season, so the upside for him to hit the 30-goal mark, again, is definitely there.

[More Fantasy: Rotoworld’s DFS Toolkit]

Anthony Beauvillier – W – New York Islanders

Beauvillier ended up finishing last season with a respectable 21 goals and 36 points in 71 games, but he had his share of ups and downs. The Islanders even felt the need to send him back to the minors mid-season. With John Tavares no longer in New York, Mathew Barzal will need someone new to step up. Enter Beauvillier. The 21-year-old could be one of the big surprises of 2018-19.

Kyle Okposo – W – Buffalo Sabres

After reading everything he went through while dealing with a concussion, it’s hard not to feel sorry for Okposo and his family. Now that he’s healthy again, the 30-year-old could get back to surpassing the 20-goal and 50-point marks this season. The Sabres are young, but there’s no denying that they have talent.

Justin Schultz – D – Pittsburgh Penguins

Schultz posted a career-high 12 goals and 51 points two years ago, but those numbers dropped 27 points last season. Of course, he also missed 19 games due to injury. Expecting him to score 51 points again might be a little ambitious, but he should be able to improve last year’s numbers.

Carey Price – G – Montreal Canadiens

The Canadiens probably won’t be a playoff team, but it’s hard to imagine that Price will be worse than he was last year. The 31-year-old had 16-26-7 record with a 3.11 goals-against-average and a .900 save percentage. Yeah, it was a brutal year for him. His new eight-year extension that comes with a cap hit of $10.5 million kicks in this year, so the pressure will definitely be on. Price should be fine.

Matt Murray – G – Pittsburgh Penguins

Murray’s first year as the undisputed starting netminder in Pittsburgh didn’t go so well. He had a solid 27-16-3 record, but that had more to do with the fact that he was on a good team. He added a 2.92 goals-against-average and a .907 save percentage in 2017-18. Now that he’s gone through one year without Marc-Andre Fleury, he’ll be better equipped to handle a heavy workload.

MORE:
Sleepers, bargains for 2018-19
Goalies and other risky picks

 

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.