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?

PHT Morning Skate: Top NHL-affiliated prospects; rookie dinner stories

Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• TSN hockey analyst Craig Button released his list of top 50 NHL-affiliated prospects. A couple of Russians are at the top of this list. (TSN.ca)

• Find out how Devils defenseman Damon Serverson became a fan of rodeo and bull-riding. (NJ.com)

• The Islanders have received some solid contributions from their fourth line, which is made up of Casey Cizikas, Matt Martin, and Cal Clutterbuck. (Newsday)

• Sports Illustrated’s Alex Prewitt did a little digging to find out what some players’ rookie dinner looked like. (Sports Illustrated)

• Coming into this season, Rasmus Dahlin was expected to be the top rookie defenseman in the NHL. Let’s just say that Miro Heiskanen is giving him a run for his money. (The Score)

• Where do the Minnesota Wild go from here? (The Hockey News)

• NHL.com had a sit down with Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois. (NHL.com)

• The Nashville Predators should look into trading for Panthers forward Mike Hoffman. (Predlines)

Patrick Maroon going home to St. Louis was a nice story, but it hasn’t worked out for either side. (St. Louis Game-Time)

• Over the course of the 1,000 games Brooks Orpik has played in his career, he’s had to adjust his game. (NBC Washington)

Jake Gardiner and Larry Murphy have a few things in common. First of all, they’ve both been booed by their home crowd in Toronto. (Canadian Press)

Matt Duchene plays “What’s in the Box” with Paul Bissonnette:

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.

The Buzzer: Aho helps Hurricanes keep rolling; Islanders, Flames win big

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Three Stars

1. Sebastian Aho, Carolina Hurricanes. With wins in seven out of their past eight games the Carolina Hurricanes are trying to make a run at a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. They continued their recent strong play on Sunday afternoon with a very impressive win over one of the league’s best teams, the Nashville Predators, and it was Sebastian Aho once again leading the way. Aho finished with four points, including a hat trick, in the 6-3 win. Aho now has 12 points during this recent eight-game stretch and is up to 21 goals and 51 total points for the season. He is having an incredible season.

2. Mark Giordano, Calgary Flames. The Calgary Flames are looking like one of the best teams in the NHL and dominated the Arizona Coyotes on Sunday night with an emphatic 7-1 win that featured another huge game for Norris Trophy contender Mark Giordano. Giordano scored two goals and added an assist in the win as he continues what has been the best season of his already strong career.

3. Thomas Greiss, New York Islanders. This was a complete beatdown for the New York Islanders as they raced out to an early three-goal lead against the NHL’s best team, the Tampa Bay Lightning, and never looked back. One of the reasons they never looked back is because Thomas Greiss stopped 38 out of the 39 shots he faced. Regular starter Robin Lehner has been one of the Islanders’ best and most important players this season, but Greiss has been outstanding as well and now has a save percentage north of .917 for the season, which is well above the league average. 

Other notable performances from Sunday

  • Artemi Panarin had two more points and Nick Foligno scored two goals as the Columbus Blue Jackets were all over the New York Rangers in a 7-5 win that left Rangers coach David Quinn fuming angry after it was over.
  • Johnny Gaudreau had two more points to give him 67 on the season, tying him with Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid for third-most in the league. They are both just one point behind Mikko Rantanen of the Colroado Avalanche for second in the scoring race. Everyone is a distance second to Tampa Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov, who was held off the scoresheet on Sunday night, something that has not happened very much this season.
  • The New York Islanders’ fourth line played a big role in their win over the Tampa Bay Lightning by scoring a pair of goals. Cal Clutterbuck, Casey Cizikas, and Matt Martin all had two points in the win.

Highlights of the Night

Yes, it came in a losing effort but Nashville Predators forward Filip Forsberg scored a pretty incredible goal on Sunday afternoon.

The Vancouver Canucks did not get Michael Matheson to drop the gloves in response to his body-slam on prized rookie Elias Petterson earlier this season, but they did get plenty of revenge on the scored with a 5-1 win over the Florida Panthers. Jacob Markstrom had a great night in goal against his former team with this fancy glove save being his best of the night. 

The Winnipeg Jets sent the Anaheim Ducks to their 11th straight defeat thanks to this overtime goal from Bryan Little with 10 seconds remaining in the overtime period. 

Factoids

  • Winnipeg Jet forward Patrik Laine scored his 25th goal of the season on Sunday, giving him three 25-goal seasons in the NHL before celebrating his 21st birthday. Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Carpenter, Dale Hawerchuk, Brian Bellows, Jimmy Carson, and Ilya Kovalchuk are the only other players in league history to accomplish that feat. [NHL PR]
  • The Calgary Flames needed just 47 games to record their 30th win of the season, matching a franchise record for fewest games needed to win 30 games in a season. The other season they did it was the 1988-89 campaign, when they went on to win the Stanley Cup. [NHL PR]
  • Carolina Hurricanes forward Justin Williams extended his goal-scoring streak to five games on Sunday afternoon, making him just the sixth player in NHL history to record a goal-scoring streak of at least five games after celebrating their 37th birthday. [NHL PR]

Scores

Carolina Hurricanes 6, Nashville Predators 3

Winnipeg Jets 4, Anaheim Ducks 3 (OT)

Columbus Blue Jackets 7, New York Rangers 5

Vancouver Canucks 5, Florida Panthers 1

New York Islanders 5, Tampa Bay Lightning 1

Calgary Flames 7, Arizona Coyotes 1

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.

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

Atmosphere on display as Islanders return to Nassau Coliseum

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UNIONDALE, N.Y. — The New York Islanders knew what to expect. As the players and staff drove home from Saturday morning’s skate at their practice facility not far from Nassau Coliseum, they saw fans already in the arena parking lot tailgating, preparing for the team’s return to the old barn on Hempstead Turnpike.

When the players hit the ice for warmups, the noise inside the building rose in a mostly-packed arena with Let’s Go Islanders chants belted out like the old days.

When Casey Cizikas broke a 2-2 tie 7:09 into the third period, completely erasing a 2-0 lead the Columbus Blue Jackets once had, the deafening roar of the Coliseum crowd evoked memories of the team’s 43-year run before moving to Barclays Center in 2015.

“It’s fun playing hockey when you go out there like that and there’s that energy, there’s that momentum,” said Islanders captain Anders Lee. “We knew it was going to be special.”

***

Back for the first of 21 games this season, the Islanders returned to Long Island and to the Coliseum Saturday night. As part of a split schedule, the team is calling two arenas home this season.

Barclays Center has been since their rink since the 2015-16 season, but in an effort to find a permanent solution in “Islanders Country,” the team’s new ownership won the bid to build an arena near Belmont Park race track, which is set to open in time for the 2021-22 NHL season. While they wait, the team will play 61 of its home games over the next three seasons at the Coliseum, which has undergone a $165M renovation.

The Islanders have been back at the Coliseum since moving to Barclays, but the two preseason games couldn’t come close to the atmosphere that was inside the building during a memorable comeback win. 

There was a different energy inside, one that’s impossible to replicate at Barclays Center. The Islanders were back and supplied an another memory for the 13,917 in attendance to take away following a trip back to what was once dubbed “Fort Neverlose.”

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It had been 1,316 days between meaningful Islanders games at the Coliseum. Cal Clutterbuck’s empty-net goal to seal Game 6 against the Washington Capitals in the first-round of the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs was the final one in the building before the move. 

The head coach on the other bench that game was Barry Trotz. He saw first-hand how the atmosphere provided by the fans in the Coliseum affected the players, which is why he started the line of Cizikas, Clutterbuck and Matt Martin, three of nine players who were on the ice that night against the Capitals. The trio brought their physical edge to the game’s opening shift, with both the fans and players feeding off each other’s energy.

Cizikas’ involvement was evident all night, and it was fitting that it was his goal that stood as the game winner and completed the comeback.

“I had a lot of emotions running through my body,” he said afterward. “I was more tired from screaming on the celebration than I was from the actual shift.”

***

Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella has coached a lot of games at the Coliseum, but none were more memorable than the ones he was involved with while coaching the New York Rangers. The division rivals are known for their spirited meetings that see the on-ice emotions spill over into the crowd.

“The things that were going on in the stands, it was better than the game sometimes,” Tortorella said. “When other teams come in here, they don’t experience that. That Ranger-Islander game, no matter what building — MSG or here — they’re a blast to play in. It’s when hockey was hockey. The stuff going on in the stands was just incredible.”

Tortorella and the Blue Jackets played in the original final regular season game at the Coliseum in April 2015, but there were no tears shed or final goodbyes given at the end of that game as the Islanders still had a playoff matchup against the Capitals awaiting them. The head coach was glad to be back three years later.

“This building has seen some tremendous games and some tremendous players have played in here,” he said. “I’m glad we’re the first team doing it with them because I do think when they’re charged up, the crowd’s charged up, I think it helps the visiting team, too.”

***

From the pre-game tailgating to the Let’s Go Islanders car honks in the parking lot to the YES YES YES chants to the appearances of franchise legends Clark Gillies, Bobby Nystrom and Ed Westfall, it was a nostalgic return on an emotional night. The players couldn’t stop talking about the atmosphere afterward, praising the fans and speaking glowingly about being able to be back on that Coliseum ice.

Martin is the second-longest tenured Islander behind Josh Bailey with 452 of his 584 career games coming with New York. He made his NHL debut on the Coliseum ice in 2010 and quickly made himself a fan favorite. It was a difficult decision for the franchise to watch him leave for Toronto, but when it was clear the Maple Leafs were looking to move him over the summer, it was pretty easy to see where he’d find a perfect fit and be welcomed back with open arms.

Being able to start Saturday’s night game and feed off the vibe in the arena was something Martin won’t forget.

“It’s a rambunctious group. It’s awesome,” said Martin. “They’re so fun to play in front of. … It’s the best building I’ve ever played in.”

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.