Semyon Varlamov

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How concerning is Islanders’ recent play?

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It’s been a tale of two very different seasons so far for the New York Islanders.

It began with them storming out of the gate with a 16-3-2 record in their first 21 games. That start included a 17-game point streak where their only losses were a 4-3 overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins — a game where they surrendered a three-goal third period lead — and a 2-1 overtime loss to the Sharks. They were less than 30 minutes and maybe two or three shots away from matching the longest winning streak in NHL history.

Since then? It’s been a very different story. In the 27 games that have followed the Islanders have been the definition of average when it comes to their results. Their 12-12-3 record during that stretch gives them a points percentage of exactly .500, while they have gone from what looked to be a slam dunk playoff team with home ice in round 1, to one that is just a single point clear of a wild card spot (Columbus is right on their tails, while they are six points back of the Pittsburgh Penguins for the second spot in the Metropolitan Division) and only three points clear of the non-playoff teams.

Depending on what happens on Tuesday in their game against the New York Rangers, combined with the results in Philadelphia (against Pittsburgh at 7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN) and Carolina (against a slumping Winnipeg Jets team), they could either maintain their current cushion, or see it shrink to as little as one point.

On one hand, every team is going to slump at some point during an 82-game season. But this is starting to become more than just a “slump.” We’re now at 27 games (more than 32 percent of the season) where they have struggled. They’ve been average to below average more than they’ve been successful at this point.

Digging down to a more recent sampling of games, the Islanders have won just five of their past 15 games with a few ugly losses in the middle of that. That includes two to the Rangers team they play on Tuesday, and a brutal loss over the weekend against Washington where they turned a 4-1 third period lead into a 6-4 defeat. This is currently the worst 15-game stretch they have had in a year-and-a-half under Barry Trotz, and their worst since they melted down during the stretch run of the 2017-18 season.

The Islanders are mostly the same team they were a year ago, not only in terms of the roster, but also the way they play. They do not score a lot of goals, they give up a ton of shots and regularly get outshot, but still remain one of the top goal prevention teams in the league overall. Lately, that has started to change.

In the 27 games since their point streak ended they have dropped down to 10th in the league in goals against per 60 minutes in all situations, and 14th in goals against per 60 minutes during 5-on-5 play. Over the past 15 games, they are down to 13th and 24th respectively. It’s tough for any team to win giving up that many goals. It’s next to impossible for a team as offensively starved as the Islanders.

There are two things that should be a cause for concern here.

The first one is they miss Adam Pelech on defense. He may not be a household name around the league, but he is one of their best defensive players and has not played since Dec. 31. While their struggles started before that, he’s a difficult player to replace.

The second is that a lot of the Islanders’ success the past year-and-a-half has been goaltending driven. A year ago it was the duo of Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss. Lehner played at a Vezina Trophy level, and the perpetually underrated Greiss was a perfect complement in a platoon role. Every team that gets bombarded on the shot chart and still finds ways to prevent goals and wins thinks they’ve found the secret to something. But shot volume still matters, and if you’re giving up a lot of shots, it stands to reason that quality chances (and goals) will eventually follow. In the end, it still really comes down to elite goaltending.

Early this season the duo of Semyon Varlamov and Greiss was still giving them that, and the wins were still there.

Here’s the problem: They haven’t necessarily been bad lately. In the 27 game stretch that duo has a .915 save percentage which is not only FAR above the league average, it is 8th best in the league during that stretch. Of the top-14 teams in save percentage during that stretch, they are the only team that does not have a points percentage of at least .540.

Even during the past 15 games they are still getting exactly league average goaltending (.904). And they can’t win.

It’s not that the goaltenders have necessarily struggled lately, it’s that the Islanders’ success is built around them being great. When they are anything less than great — even if they are still very good — the team struggles. Badly.

Even before this recent regression they needed another scorer or two. With Pelech sidelined they might need another defensemen, too. But the biggest thing they need is for them to give their goaltenders more support and not be completely dependent on them.

 

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.

The Buzzer: Larkin goes coast to coast; Hurricanes shut out Coyotes

Dylan Larkin #71 of the Detroit Red Wings celebrates
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Three Stars

1) Dylan Larkin, Detroit Red Wings

Larkin took matters into his own hands midway through the second period when he skated from his own zone and completed a breakaway in the Red Wings’ 3-2 win against the Ottawa Senators. He would later add a shootout tally that proved to be the game-deciding goal in Detroit’s second straight win.

2) Petr Mrazek, Carolina Hurricanes

The Czech goaltender made 32 saves and picked up his third shutout of the season in the Hurricanes’ 3-0 win over the Arizona Coyotes Friday. Several lucrative contracts were given out to goaltenders this past offseason but Mrazek has proven to be the best value. Semyon Varlamov has been solid for the Islanders and Sergei Bobrovsky has been inconsistent for the Florida Panthers but both received long-term deals. Mrazek has provided a strong return on the two-year deal he signed in the summer of 2019.

3) Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins

Malkin tied Jaromir Jagr for 3rd on the Penguins’ all-time assist list when he helped set up a third-period game-tying goal. He later added a goal of his own when he fired a wrister past Pavel Francouz at 15:43 of the third period. Cale Makar helped the Avalanche force OT with a goal in the final seconds, but the Penguins would leave the Pepsi Center with two points thanks to Jared McCann’s game-winner.

Highlight of the Night

If Larkin prefers to not attend All-Star Weekend, he should stop completing these types of plays.

I’ll just leave this here.

The tweet below says all that is needed.

Blooper of the night

Tyler Ennis’ unusual shootout attempt was not successful.

Injury

In his first game back since leaving a game against the Philadelphia Flyers on January 4th, Antti Raanta exited the Coyotes game Friday with a lower-body injury.

Stat of the night

NHL Scores

Carolina Hurricanes 3, Arizona Coyotes 0

Detroit Red Wings 3, Ottawa Senators 2 (SO)

Pittsburgh Penguins 4, Colorado Avalanche 3 (OT)

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

The Buzzer: Varlamov, Islanders get shutout; McDavid dazzles

Semyon Varlamov #40 of the New York Islanders
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Three Stars

1) Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers

The Oilers captain made you forget about his three-assist performance with a spectacular goal of his own in the third period of Edmonton’s 6-4 win against Toronto. McDavid danced around Morgan Rielly and then fooled Michael Hutchinson with a nifty deke. It is always something special to see one of the NHL’s brightest stars finish a sequence by utilizing his creativity and high-end skill.

2) Semyon Varlamov, New York Islanders

The Islanders needed a win at home after dropping four straight games at Nassau Coliseum. They relied on stellar goaltending and commitment to defense to shut down the high-flying Avalanche and pick up a 1-0 win. Varlamov made 32 saves, including 12 in the third period in his first game against his former team since signing a four-year deal with New York this summer. It was only the second time Colorado was shut out this season.

3) Nikolaj Ehlers, Winnipeg Jets

Blake Wheeler did the right thing by dishing the puck to Ehlers on a shorthanded 2-on-0 opportunity. Ehlers created a neutral zone turnover due to an active stick, then the Jets captain rewarded him for the extra effort. The Danish winger also added an assist in the Jets’ 3-2 victory over the Canadiens.

Highlights of the Night

McDavid is in a world of his own

Carey Price denies Kyle Connor’s point-blank attempt

Blooper of the Night

Derick Brassard made sure Anders Lee didn’t lose his mouthguard during his celebration

Stats of the Night

NHL Scores

Edmonton Oilers 6, Toronto Maple Leafs 4

Winnipeg Jets 3, Montreal Canadiens 2

New York Islanders 1, Colorado Avalanche 0

Columbus Blue Jackets 4, Los Angeles Kings 2

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

PHT Face-Off: Kovalchuk’s impact on Habs; Bruins shootout struggles

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It’s Monday, which means it’s time for PHT’s Weekly Face-Off column. We’ll break down some of the significant trends and topics in the NHL for the upcoming week.

Here we go:

• What can Ilya Kovalchuk do for Habs?

Kovalchuk has a lot to prove heading into his tenure with the Montreal Canadiens. As general manager Marc Bergevin pointed out last week, this will be the Russian winger’s last chance in the NHL. If he blows this opportunity, it’ll be Europe or retirement for him.

Montreal is so banged up right now that all they need is an NHL caliber forward. With Brendan Gallagher, Joel Armia, Jonathan Drouin and Paul Byron all out, the Canadiens had no choice but to bring in a veteran off the street. Bergevin made it clear he wouldn’t sacrifice picks and prospects for immediate help, so this was the logical next step.

What are realistic expectations for the 36-year-old though? In 64 games with the Kings last season, he managed to put the puck in the net 16 times. Those are the facts. If you break that down over an 82-game season, it adds up to 20.5 goals for the year.

The Habs can’t be expecting much more from Kovalchuk. It’s just not realistic. Since we’re at the midway point of the season, it seems reasonable for Bergevin and the Habs to expect 10 goals out of their new winger. Anything more would be a bonus.

Andrei Vasilevskiy is starting to heat up

It’s been a tough year for Vasilevskiy. He simply hasn’t looked like himself for most of the year. But things are finally starting to turn around for the Lightning netminder. He’s now won five games in a row. He’s given up four goals in two of those games, but he’s also held the opposition to one goal in the other three contests.

Even though it’s unfair to suggest that he was holding the Lightning back in the first half the season, there’s a little bit of truth in that statement. He wasn’t living up to the $9.5 million cap hit that he’s commanding and that was a problem. If he can keep this going, the Bolts will continue to climb the standings in a hurry.

This is how tough things have been for him, Sergei Bobrovsky and Carey Price this season:

It’s a weird year for the high-end goalies.

• Bruins not so good in shootouts

The Boston Bruins are currently second in the NHL standings, but they couldn’t possibly be any worse in the shootout. Heading into this week, Boston has an 0-6 record in the glorified skills competition. That’s odd and kind of surprising considering the amount of talent they have on the team.

If we break their team down by attempts, here’s what we come up with:
Brad Marchand: 0-for-6
Charlie Coyle: 2-for-4
Chris Wagner: 1-for-2
David Pastrnak: 1-for-4
Jake DeBrusk: 0-for-2
Patrice Bergeron: 0-for-1
David Krejci: 0-for-1
Charlie McAvoy: 0-for-1

On the goalie’s side of things, here are how the Bruins stack up:

Jaroslav Halak has given up five goals on 13 shootout attempts (61.5 percent)
Tuukka Rask has given up five goals on 11 shootout attempts (54.5 percent)

They’re ranked 32nd and 34th respectively in shootout save percentage. Not so good!

• Arizona’s Taylor Hall vs. New Jersey’s Taylor Hall

Since joining the Coyotes last month, Hall has seen his advanced metrics improve quite a bit. That’s not exactly shocking when you consider how bad the Devils have been though.

Hall has a modest six points in nine games with the ‘Yotes, but they’re way more dangerous when he’s on the ice. Here’s the breakdown via Natural Stat Trick just to give you an idea:

When Hall is on the ice, they have 54.47 percent of the shot attempts, 57.58 percent of the expected goals for, 56.2 percent of the scoring chances and 58.49 percent of the high-danger chances.

Yes, we’re working with a pretty small sample size, but if those trends continue he should be lighting the lamp quite a bit for his new team.

Since landing Hall, the Coyotes have a 5-4-0 record which isn’t great. The positive part of that, is that they’ve now won three games in a row against St. Louis, Anaheim and Philadelphia.

What’s coming up this week?
Semyon Varlamov revenge game: Avalanche vs. Islanders, Mon. Jan. 6, 7 p.m. ET.
Marc-Andre Fleury revenge game: Penguins vs. Golden Knights, Tue. Jan. 7, 10 p.m. ET.
Joe Pavelski revenge game: Stars vs. Sharks, Sat. Jan. 11, 10 p.m. ET.

NHL on NBCSN
• Oilers vs. Maple Leafs, Mon. Jan. 6, 7 p.m. ET (live stream)
• Stars vs. Kings, Wed. Jan. 8, 10:30 p.m. ET
• Predators vs. Blackhawks, Thu. Jan. 9, 8:30 p.m. ET

Wednesday Night Hockey
• Flyers vs. Capitals, Wed. Jan. 8, 7:30 p.m. ET.

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.

NHL on NBCSN: Islanders have another great goaltending duo

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Thursday’s matchup between the New York Islanders and New Jersey Devils. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Since the start of the 2018-19 season the New York Islanders have been the NHL’s toughest team to score against.

Barry Trotz brought defensive structure and discipline to the lineup, while their goaltending has consistently been top-shelf.

It was great last year with Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss.

It has been outstanding again this year with Greiss and Semyon Varlamov. While both have played great hockey this season, it seems that Varlamov is really starting to gain the trust of Trotz as he appears to be on track to make his third consecutive start (and fourth consecutive appearance) on Tuesday night against the New Jersey Devils (6 p.m. ET; NBCSN). 

There is no official word from the Islanders as to whether or not it will be Varlamov, but given how early he left the ice during the morning skate it would be shock if he did not play. If he does, it will be the first time this season the Islanders will have used the same starting goalie for three consecutive games as they continue to maintain the goalie rotation/platoon split that they used so effectively a year ago.

As a duo, they have the fifth-best all situations save percentage in the NHL this season and the third-best even-strength save percentage.

[COVERAGE OF ISLANDERS-DEVILS BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET ON NBCSN]

Greiss’ play shouldn’t come as a surprise anymore. Since joining the Islanders he has been one of the most underrated goalies in the league and outside of a disastrous 2017-18 season (when the entire team stopped playing defense in front of the goalies) he has been a rock in net when his number has been called. Even during his most recent stretch where he has been on the losing end of decisions he hasn’t performed poorly (he has lost five of his past six decisions, but has had a save percentage of .915 or better in four of those games).

Varlamov’s play is more of a pleasant surprise.

Other than whether or not they had enough offense to to take the next step as Stanley Cup contenders, probably the biggest question for the Islanders entering this season was whether or not Varlamov would be an adequate replacement in net for Lehner following his free agent departure to the Chicago Blackhawks. Lehner was one of the biggest stories in the league last season and was a finalist for the Vezina Trophy thanks to his stellar play in the Islanders’ net. It was kind of a shock the way the Islanders allowed him to leave as easily as they did.

But Varlamov has stepped right into that role left behind and played some of his best hockey in years.

The Islanders have earned at least one point in 17 of his 20 starts, while it has been more than a month since they failed to earn at least one point in one of his starts.

The Islanders may not score a ton of goals and they may give up their share of shots, but as long as they have two goaltenders playing at a level like this they are going to have a chance every night.

Brendan Burke will handle play-by-play duties alongside AJ Mleczko and Pierre McGuire at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, NY.

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.