Leo Komarov

Lamoriello, Trotz orchestrate Islanders’ big turnaround

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NEW YORK (AP) — Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz say they didn’t know exactly what to expect from the New York Islanders this season.

There were plenty of questions after the Islanders gave up 293 goals – the most in the NHL since 2006-07 – while missing the playoffs for the eighth time in 11 years. There was uncertainty on offense when star center John Tavares left in free agency for his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs.

”There were a lot of unknowns. We had no preconceived notions,” Lamoriello said. ”Whatever expectations there were, there were really none one way or another.”

The answers have come in the form of a stunning one-year turnaround that has the Islanders in the second round of the playoffs. New York gave up a league-low 191 goals, charged to second place in the Metropolitan Division and just swept the star-laden Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round.

Knowing some had picked them to miss the playoff again, players just shrug it off.

”That’s kind of been a little bit of the story line here and we’re used to it,” said Anders Lee, who succeeded Tavares as team captain. ”That’s just the way it’s been, not just this year, it’s kind of always been that way. This year we’ve really taken it on and run with it.”

Both Lamoriello and Trotz say they knew they were going to give up fewer goals with a better defensive approach.

”We wanted to play a certain way,” Trotz said. ”We knew we could fix the goals against, that’s commitment and that’s work ethic, detail and structure.”

The 76-year-old Lamoriello, whose long career includes building the New Jersey Devils into an NHL power a generation ago, vowed to bring a culture change to the Islanders when he took over as the president of hockey operations last May. A few weeks later, he fired general manager Garth Snow and coach Doug Weight.

Trotz was hired as coach in June, days after he led Washington to its first Stanley Cup championship and then abruptly resigned in a contract dispute. The hiring was celebrated by the Islanders’ rabid fan base, which has seen just one postseason series win since 1993 – a far cry from the glory days of winning four championships in a row.

After losing Tavares, Lamoriello went about filling the roster with players with winning experience. Veterans like Leo Komarov, 32, and Valtteri Filppula, 35, were brought in to help the development of youngsters like Anthony Beauvilier. And 27-year-old Tom Kuhnhackl, who won two Stanley Cups with the Penguins, was also a solid addition.

”We were looking for good people, the people who have won,” Trotz said. ”That’s so important for our growth as an organization and a group coming in. We looked for character people and Lou did a great job.”

The Islanders have embraced Trotz’s swarming, defense-first system.

”It’s helped us all along,” said forward Josh Bailey, now the longest-tenured Islander in his 11th season with the team. ”It’s a big part of our identity and I think the more results we’ve seen as the season went on, the more belief (it fostered) in one another and what we were doing, and trust in our staff and everyone.”

A big question in the offseason centered on goaltending after Robin Lehner was signed to pair with Thomas Greiss. Lehner was with Buffalo the previous season and left a game down the stretch because of a panic attack and was subsequently treated for alcohol and drug addiction and also diagnosed with bipolar disorder, ADHD and PTSD. He talked openly about his personal life when he joined the Islanders, and credited the organization and his new teammates with giving him support.

Greiss and Lehner were solid all season. Greiss went 23-14-2 with a 2.28 goals-against average and five shutouts while Lehner was 25-13-5 with a 2.13 GAA and six shutouts. The two shared the William Jennings Trophy for the team allowing the fewest goals in the league. Lehner started all four games in the series against the Penguins, limiting them to six goals on 136 shots, and is a finalist for the Vezina Trophy.

The focus on defense has meant playing with more discipline. And while a few players enjoyed boosts in their offensive production, it meant reductions for others, including Mathew Barzal, Lee, Bailey and Jordan Eberle. The sacrifices have resulted in more overall success.

”We play as a team,” Trotz said. ”I think everybody has given up a part of themselves to be a part of something greater.”

The coach points to a road trip in December that became a springboard for the rest of the season. They had lost five of the previous nine after the Thanksgiving weekend, and then won three of four, shutting down high-scoring lines for Colorado and Dallas.

”I think from that point we really trusted our game,” Trotz said. ”We were sort of in-between a little bit and that sort of galvanized the group.”

In the second game after Christmas, the Islanders went to Toronto and shut out the Maple Leafs 5-0 in their first game playing against Tavares. It was part of a stretch in which the Islanders went 16-2-3 from Dec. 8 to Feb. 2 to jump to the top of the division.

”I came into this team and talked to the guys straight in the summer and a lot of the guys said ‘We’re going to go far,”’ Lehner said. ”That just grew during the season when the system started to jell and we started playing together.”

They Islanders say they’re not simply satisfied with just getting to the second round, where they will face either Carolina or Trotz’s former team, the Capitals.

”We’re nowhere near where we want to be at,” Bailey said. ”You have to win four (series) to win it all.”

Follow Vin Cherwoo at http://www.twitter.com/VinCherwooAP

More AP NHL: http://www.apnews.com/NHL and http://www.twitter.com/AP-Sports

Penguins look lost, broken against Islanders

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PITTSBURGH — If you wanted to get a snapshot on how things have been going for the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the final 10 seconds of the first period on Sunday would be a great place to start.

In short, it was a disjointed mess.

After squandering an early lead by giving up two goals in less than a minute, the Penguins found themselves with a 3-on-1 odd-man rush that should have been an opportunity to tie the game heading into the intermission. Instead of getting the equalizer and what could have been a game-changing goal, the Penguins failed to register a shot as 40-goal scorer Jake Guentzel not only deferred by forcing a cross-crease pass to Dominik Simon (while ignoring the wide open trailing player that was Kris Letang), but by also putting the pass directly into his skates, completely handcuffing him.

Just like that, one of the few threatening moments they had in the game completely fizzled out with the bad execution of what was probably the wrong decision.

They would get few chances after that on their way to a lackluster 4-1 loss to the New York Islanders that now has them facing elimination and what could be their first Round 1 exit since the 2015.

That play, in a lot of ways, was a microcosm of everything that has gone wrong for the Penguins in this series.

And this series has been a microcosm of everything that has gone wrong and plagued them this entire season.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

There has been little doubt as to which team has been better through the first three games, and it has very clearly been an Islanders team that has feasted on every Penguins mistake — of which there have been many — and exposed every glaring flaw the roster has.

The dominant storyline right now is going to be the Penguins’ power outage on offense that has seen them score just two goals over the past two games. Those two goals came on an Erik Gudbranson slap shot that beat a screened Robin Lehner from 60 feet out on Friday, and a Garrett Wilson goal that barely crossed the goal line on Sunday.

Sidney Crosby and Guentzel are still looking for their first points of the series. Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel have been productive, but haven’t always looked like constant threats. The depth is still lacking.

Put it all together and the results are not anything close to what the Penguins want or expect.

But hockey isn’t always just about the results; it is also about the process that leads to those results, and the process that has put the two teams in their current positions is what is perhaps most striking, and ultimately, most concerning for the Penguins right now.

Let’s start with this: The Islanders simply look faster, and not by a little bit, either.

When the Penguins have the puck it often times looks like they are playing 5-on-6 as they are unable to create any space for themselves, or generate any sort of a consistent breakout out of the defensive zone, or sustain any pressure in the offensive zone.

On the other side, the Islanders are not only excelling in all of those areas, but also look to be the far more dangerous team when they have the puck despite having a roster that, on paper, is not as star-laden as the Penguins.

That leads to a game of mistakes.

Mistakes the Islanders are not making, and mistakes the Penguins are making.

“There is not a lot of risk associated with the Islanders’ game,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan. “They have numbers back, they have a defensive first mentality and that has been their identity all year, and that is what has brought them success. We know what we are up against. We know what the challenge is. We have talked about it since before the series started. Our identity is a little bit different, but having said that, we have to have more of a discipline associated with our game in the critical areas of the rink so we become a team that is more difficult to play against.”

In response to that, Sullivan was asked if the players are not totally buying into what needs to be done, or if it is just a matter of simply not executing.

“They care. They want to win. They understand what it takes. I’m not going to sit here and say they are not buying in, sometimes it becomes a game of mistakes,” said Sullivan. “We have to just do a better job eliminating the ones we are making.”

But after 82 regular season games and three playoff games where the same mistakes keep happening, it is becoming less and less likely that is going to happen, and that is where you see the flaws in the roster showing themselves.

This is not the same team that won Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017, in construction or style.

A team that was once built on a mobile defense, playing fast, and living by the “Just Play” mantra has spent the past two years adding players known more for size and strength than speed and skill, and often times spent too much time looking for retribution and retaliation than just simply …  playing.

The most glaring flaw at the moment remains on the blue line, and that is where a lot of the Islanders’ advantage has come from in this series.

And it is not just about defensive zone coverage and the ability to prevent odd-man rushes. It is also about the ability to play with the puck and move it.

The Islanders are younger, faster, far more mobile and, quite simply, better on the back end, and it is feeding their transition game.

Outside of Kris Letang and Justin Schultz the Penguins do not have that on their blue line, especially after adding Jack Johnson and Gudbranson over the past year, two players whose skillsets do not play to their strengths. What should be the simplest plays look to be a challenge. That has shown itself repeatedly over the first three games of the series. After being a healthy scratch in Game 1, Johnson returned to the lineup the past two games and has not only taken three penalties, but was guilty of the turnover that led to Leo Komarov‘s late third period goal that was the dagger on Sunday. Sullivan’s decision to play Olli Maatta over him in that spot in Game 1 was heavily criticized in Pittsburgh, especially after Maatta struggled badly, but the Johnson-Schultz pairing has spent the past two games living in its own zone. That is not a good thing.

That is not to single them out, either, because Letang, Schultz, Maatta, Brian Dumoulin, and Marcus Pettersson have all had the same issues, and it is not a new problem for this team. There is a reason the Penguins have been one of the league’s worst shot suppression teams for two years now, constantly prone to lapses and breakdowns in the defensive zone, and been alarmingly inconsistent from one game to the next.

As it stands, both teams have more than earned their current position. But given how calm, composed, and smooth the Islanders have looked in all phases of the game from the very beginning, and how out of sorts the Penguins have looked, it is going to take a major swing to simply get this series back to New York for Game 5, let alone have a different outcome than the one it seems to be headed toward.

Game 4 of the Penguins-Islanders series is Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN 

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.

Islanders continue to have all the answers, take 3-0 series lead vs. Penguins

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The New York Islanders took a commanding 3-0 series lead over the Pittsburgh Penguins with a 4-1 victory Sunday afternoon at PPG Paints Arena

Once again, the Penguins had no answers for the Islanders, who displayed yet another strong defensive effort, controlled possession, and kept the high-danger chances low. New York also kept Pittsburgh’s stars quiet as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and Jake Guentzel combined for zero points. The last time Crosby went pointless in three straight playoff games in the 2016 Eastern Conference Final.

When the Penguins thought they had an advantage — following Garrett Wilson‘s goal 12:54 into the first period for a 1-0 lead — the Islanders answered right back. Jordan Eberle continued his productive postseason by scoring his third goal of the series on a lovely shot following a fantastic feed from Ryan Pulock.

“We’ve got to do a better job of hanging onto the momentum when we get it,” Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said afterward.

Eberle is now the third Islanders players in since 1994 to score in three straight playoff games, joining Kyle Okposo (2013) and Kip Miller (2002).

[2019 NBC STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS HUB]

The home crowd was silent, and then the anxiety grew 62 seconds later when Brock Nelson gave the Islanders a 2-1 lead.

Finding themselves trailing in another game this series, the Penguins, as they did in the previous two games, could not generate enough to test Lehner and threaten any sort of comeback. Leo Komarov‘s goal midway through the third period put the game out of reach and helped the Islanders improve to 41-2-2 when scoring at least three times this season.

The Islanders will go for the sweep in Game 4 on Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

MORE: Penguins look lost, broken against Islanders

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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.

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

Maple Leafs’ Tavares to face Islanders for first time

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TORONTO — John Tavares used to be a mainstay of the New York Islanders, eventually becoming their captain.

The 28-year-old center, however, will be on the opposing team for the first time in his career Saturday night when the Islanders visit the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Scotiabank Arena.

“I assume it will be strange for sure at some level,” said Tavares, who signed as a free agent with the Maple Leafs during the offseason. “It’s really hard to say because I’ve never done it before.”

Tavares had a strong warmup for the reunion with his former team, scoring two goals Friday night when the Maple Leafs defeated the Blue Jackets 4-2 in Columbus.

The Islanders also are coming off a win, overcoming 2-0 and 3-1 deficits at home to defeat the Ottawa Senators 6-3 on Friday.

Tavares had 272 goals and 349 assists in 669 games with the Islanders and was their captain from 2013-18.

In 38 games with Toronto, he has 26 goals, and is on a pace that would surpass his career-best 38 goals, set in 2014-15.

“He’s got a stick like a crowbar,” Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock said. “He’s heavy, heavy on it. He’s got elite hockey sense.”

“He’s getting to the net, he’s making plays,” said Maple Leafs right winger Mitch Marner, who assisted on both goals by Tavares Friday and scored one himself. “I think everyone knew when he came here how good of a one-on-one player he was. I think when he gets it, it’s just for me to try to find the open space and let him go to work on the people he’s going to work on.”

It figures to be an emotional night in Toronto Saturday.

“You’re in one place so long and you give so much to one place,” Tavares said. “I’m sure there will be many emotions. At the same time, I have to approach it the best way I can, just like any other game. I have to do my best to help my team win and try to play my best and be as best prepared as I can.”

Tavares, who grew up in the Toronto area, has been an important addition to the Maples Leafs, who have matured into Stanley Cup contenders.

“Johnny meant so much to this organization and to us in the room, his friends and teammates,” Islanders left winger Anders Lee, now the team captain, told Newsday. “I think we’re all looking forward to playing the game and seeing him.”

Mathew Barzal had two goals and an assist on Friday for the Islanders, who have won five of their past six games. The Maple Leafs have won five in a row.

“I know he has a lot of good friends in our room,” Islanders coach Barry Trotz said. “They do have a little bit of hurt. They understand it. But they’d like to have him as a teammate and he decided he didn’t need them as teammates anymore.”

The return theme works both ways. Former Maple Leafs, left winger Matt Martin and right winger Leo Komarov, both signed with the Islanders in the offseason, and former Maple Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello will be returning to their former home rink in Toronto.

Lamoriello became Islanders president of hockey operations after Tavares signed with Toronto.

Maple Leafs backup goaltender Garret Sparks got the start in Columbus Friday, which will set up No. 1 Frederik Andersen for the start on Friday.

Islanders goaltender Robin Lehnert stopped all 10 shots he faced after he took over in the second period from Thomas Greiss, who allowed three goals on 17 shots.

The Maple Leafs and Islanders were both playing their first game since Sunday.

Islanders right wingers Jordan Eberle (stiffness) and Cal Clutterbuck (lower body) did not play Friday.