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.

PHT Morning Skate: Isles goalies answering questions; dependable Raanta

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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.

• Fantasy Hockey GMs looking for advice should check out Rotoworld’s “Waiver Wired” column. Golden Knights forward Alex Tuch is worth adding off the wire.  (Rotoworld)

• Coming into this season, there were plenty of question marks surrounding the Islanders goalies. But so far, Thomas Greiss and Robin Lehner have been solid. (Newsday)

• Which jersey do NHLers around the league think is the best one? No surprise here. (NHL.com)

• NBC Sports Philly explains why Bobby Clarke is the greatest Philadelphia Flyer of all time. (NBC Sports Philly)

• The Anaheim Ducks are glad that they’ve made some progress recently, but the results still haven’t been there for them. (OC Register)

• With Auston Matthews sidelined by a shoulder injury, Mitch Marner has stepped up in a big way. (Toronto Star)

Antti Raanta spent several years as a backup goalie, but he’s turning into a dependable starting goaltender in Arizona right now. (NHL.com)

Jason Pominville celebrated his 1,000th NHL game in style over the weekend, and he was extremely grateful that his family could be there with him. “It’s tough not to get choked up when you see the kids, see them on the ice,” Pominville said. “Even during the game. It was kind of fortunate we had a lead. I was able to look up and hear most of them. Just a lot of people that have meant a lot to me throughout my career. A lot of great players, and great memories with them. It was pretty emotional at times.” (Buffalo News)

• The Calgary Flames have quite a few Swedes on their roster, so that group, which includes Mikael Backlund, Elias Lindholm and Rasmus Andersson, can speak in multiple languages on the ice. (Calgary Sun)

• After years of on-ice frustration, Yanni Gourde was finally rewarded with a huge contract extension. (Tampa Bay Times)

• Sometimes, teams spend a ton of money in free agency only to have those signings fail. Other times, teams make low-risk signings that work out beautifully. The Hockey News looks at five summer acquisitions that have made a surprisingly positive impact on their teams. (The Hockey News)

• Did Wayne Gretzky really end up playing for the Edmonton Oilers because of a high stakes game of backgammon? This is a wild story. (Sportsnet)

• The Ottawa Senators played their 2,000th game in the NHL, and Randy Sexton has so many memories since the team joined the league. The Sens have come a long way. (Ottawa Sun)

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: Saturday night’s alright for shutouts

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Three Stars

1. Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators

How often does this happen? You wake up on your birthday, sign a big-money extension and then go out and put up 26 save shutout against the Boston Bruins. If you answered never, you’d actually be wrong. Apparently, this is something Rinne does for fun. Yes, Rinne woke up, signed a two-year, $10 million extension and then went out and took care of business on the ice just hours later on Saturday. Rinne is now 5-1-0 this season and is making an early case for a second straight Vezina Trophy with his shiny .948 save percentage. Happy Birthday, indeed.

2. Thomas Greiss, New York Islanders

One of the reasons for the Islanders’ success this season has been the performances they’ve seen from their goalies. New York entered Saturday with the third-best team save percentage and only improved on that as the day ended. Greiss made 35 saves for his first shutout of the season, improving his record to 4-2-0 with a 1.85 goals-against-average and a .944 save percentage. The Islanders are now 8-4-1 without John Tavares and haven’t skipped a beat with Robin Lehner nursing a back strain, winning five straight.

3. Frederik Andersen, Toronto Maple Leafs

Sticking with shutouts, Andersen posted a 31-save effort himself against Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Maple Leafs came into the game 0-2 without Auston Matthews, who is out long-term with a shoulder injury. The Leafs hadn’t given their goalies run support in those previous two outings with a single goal in each of them. A lack of scoring wasn’t an issue on Saturday, however, as Toronto put up a five-spot on the Penguins. Andersen was a big factor in the win, stopping all five shots on the penalty kill as Pittsburgh went 0-for-5.

Bonus star: Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights

The fourth and final shutout of Saturday night belonged to Fleury, who made 34 saves to become the 29th player in NHL history to hit 50 clean sheets. Fleury’s second shutout of the season came against the team that puts up more shots per game than any other. Fleury also helped the Golden Knights end a two-game skid.

Other notable performances:

  • Jason Pominville and Jeff Skinner went full beast mode in the Buffalo Sabres 9-2 thumping of the Ottawa Senators. Both Pominville and Skinner each scored twice and added assists.
  • Kyle Brodziak had two goals, including the game-winner, as the Edmonton Oilers won their eighth game of the season.
  • Jaroslav Halak didn’t get an ounce of support as he stopped 39-of-40 shots in a 1-0 loss to the Predators.
  • Morgan Rielly scored twice to put him on six goals for the season, the same number he had in 76 games last season. His career-high is nine.
  • Sean Monahan had two goals and Elias Lindholm added three assists as the Flames came from behind to win 5-3 against the Blackhawks.
  • Dustin Brown had two goals (one shorthanded) and an assist for the Kings against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Anze Kopitar also scored shorthanded in the game. Torts won’t be happy.
  • It was “Timo Time in Overtime” according to the play-by-play man Randy Hahn on NBC Sports California on Saturday. Meier scored his second of the game 13 seconds into overtime to seal the win for San Jose.

Highlights of the Night

Koskinen is huge. This save is also huge.

Dangles, dekes and game winners.

What a shot:

Ever watched Brad Marchand act?

Factoids

Scores

Sabres 9, Senators 2

Stars 4, Capitals 3 (OT)

Oilers 4, Red Wings 3

Islanders 3, Devils 0

Lightning 4, Canadiens 1

Maple Leafs 5, Penguins 0

Wild 5, Blues 1

Predators 1, Bruins 0

Golden Knights 3, Hurricanes 0

Flames 5, Blackhawks 3

Sharks 4, Flyers 3 (OT)

Kings 4, Blue Jackets 1

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule


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

Should you buy the fast starts by Islanders, Canucks?

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Two of the biggest surprises in the NHL this season have to be the Vancouver Canucks and New York Islanders. When the season began, nobody had any realistic expectations for these two except for them to lose and probably lose a lot.

So far, the opposite has been happening.

The Canucks, 7-6 overtime winners against Colorado on Friday in a completely insane game, are now 9-6-0 through their first 15 games and are being powered by their two young standout forwards, Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser.

It is a surprising start because over the previous three seasons no team in the NHL (Vegas excluded, having only played in one of those seasons) had won fewer games, they lost two of their top-scorers from a year ago to retirement, and outside of the promise of Pettersson, Boeser, and Bo Horvat didn’t really have much going for them.

The Islanders, meanwhile, lost their best player — John Tavares — in free agency, entered the year with several more top players in contract years, and spent the offseason stacking a roster that was already full of depth players on long-term contracts with even more depth players on long-term contracts. It made no sense, and honestly, still probably doesn’t.

After completing a home-and-home sweep of the Penguins this past week, they enter Saturday’s game against New Jersey tied for first place in the Metropolitan Division and riding a four-game winning streak.

The early results are great, and early results matter. A lot. If they are good, they can give you a big cushion for later in the season when you might hit a slump and fall back to the back a little bit. If they are bad, like the early slow starts by the Kings and Panthers (which we wrote about here), they can end your playoff chances remarkably early because the points are almost impossible to make up.

But for as important as the results are, the process behind the results is often times just as important — if not more important — when it comes to sustaining them over the duration of the season.

That is where we start to see some red flags with the Canucks and Islanders because there is a lot of evidence that these two teams may not be playing as well as their early results might indicate, and that unless something changes there they could each be a house of cards just waiting to fall over.

Heck, the Canucks have actually been outscored this season by four goals and are 22nd in the league when it comes to goals against per game. The fact they are 9-6-0 right now with those two numbers is nothing short of insane. And it’s not like the Canucks haven’t had decent starts in recent years. In 2015-16 they were 6-2-4 (a 110-point pace) after 12 games. They won four games in a row to start the 2016-17 season. A year ago they were 8-5-2 after 15 games (only one point off their current start). All of those starts resulted in finishes that had them near the bottom of the Pacific Division and Western Conference.

The Islanders, meanwhile, are currently being carried by incredible starts by their two goalies (Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss). If those two see any sort of a regression things could turn ugly for the Islanders very, very quickly.

[Related: Ten stunning numbers from first month of NHL season]

Both of these teams have the same flaws when it comes to the way they are playing. They are both among the bottom-five teams in the league in terms of controlling shots and scoring chances, both sitting south of the 45 percent barrier when it comes to shot attempt share and scoring chance share. In other words, both teams are getting badly outshot and outchanced on a nightly basis.

There are a handful of teams in the league that are able to outperform their shot attempt numbers because they have difference-making high end talent or exceptional goaltending. Or both. The Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals the past two years come to mind. The Montreal Canadiens over the past few years had a season or two like that because Carey Price would be able to stand on his head and steal games. But most teams when they have that much of a territorial disadvantage tend to lose. A lot.

Since the start of the 2007-08 season there have been 18 teams that were below the 45 percent mark in terms of shot attempt differential and scoring chance differential on Nov. 3 (Saturday’s date). Of those 18 teams only five of them ended up making the playoffs that season. Only one of the six teams since the start of the 2011-12 season were able to do it.

Now, that is not entirely relevant to the situations the Islanders and Canucks are in because a lot of those teams managed to get off to terrible starts in the standings. The results were matching the way they playing. Things made sense.

But what about the teams that exceeded their early season shot and chance numbers and managed to actually win some games, collect points, and get off to decent starts?

Well, let’s take a look at them specifically.

There have been 10 teams since the start of 2007-08 that were under 45 percent in both shot attempts and scoring chance share through the first month of the season and managed to have a points percentage above .500 in those game.

Five of them went on to make the playoffs. Five of them collapsed, at times in spectacular fashion (looking at you, 2013-14 Toronto Maple Leafs).

Obviously a bit of a mixed bag in terms of season-long results and an ability to either maintain the early success, or improve upon the process.

It should go without saying that it is better to win these games early in the season even if you’re not playing all that well. The points matter, and they help and they can put your team in a good position. Think of it as a head start in a race. Especially if you are a team like the Canucks that is playing in a division as completely craptacular as the Pacific Division currently is because, honestly, who among that collection of mediocrity scares you?

But even with the early wins, and even with the brilliance of Elias Pettersson, the surprising play of Lehner and Greiss in New York, and the fact the Islanders have a sleeping giant of a superstar in Mathew Barzal that hasn’t really erupted yet this season, there are a lot of reasons to be skeptical of these teams being able to maintain what they have already done. And recent history of teams in their position and playing the way they have does not paint a completely promising picture.

(Shot attempt, scoring chance data via Natural Stat Trick)

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Ten stunning numbers from the first month of the NHL season

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The first month of the NHL season is already in the books, and it was an exciting one that was full of big offensive numbers, surprise teams, and great individual performances.

Each month during the season we will take a look at some stunning numbers, trends, or statistics that stand out.

So what stood out from the first month of the 2018-19 season?

Hurricanes on historic shot on goal pace — After registering 51 shots on goal in their 4-3 overtime loss to the Arizona Coyotes on Friday night, the Carolina Hurricanes are now averaging more than 42 shots on goal per game this season. In the history of the league only one team has ever gone a full season and averaged more than shots on goal, and that was the 1970-71 Boston Bruins. Now, it’s easy to write this Hurricanes number off as “it’s early” and that number is probably due to come down at some point. But even if you just look at it as the first 13 games the Hurricanes are still putting shots on net at an historic rate.

Their 551 shots on goal at this point in the season are more than any team ever at this point in the season, including the 1970-71 Bruins (who had just 536 at this point). Only six teams in league history other than these Hurricanes and the ’70-71 Bruins have managed to top the 500 shot mark at this point in the season.

The difference between this Hurricanes team and that Bruins team? The Bruins finished that season as the highest scoring team in the league by more than 100 goals (399 … the next closest team had 291). These Hurricanes are only 23rd in the league in goals per game.

Coyotes shorthanded goals — Through their first five games of the season the Arizona Coyotes could not score at all, no matter what the situation was on the ice. That has drastically changed in the three weeks since as they are now on a roll, having scored at least four goals in six of their past seven games.

One area where they have excelled is in shorthanded situations, where they are not only only of the best teams in the league at preventing goals, but have already scored seven shorthanded goals.

Brad Richardson has a league best three of them. Free agent acquisition Michael Grabner has two.

As a team, their seven shorthanded goals are by far the most in the NHL and are already more than 14 teams scored all of last season.

Perhaps even more ridiculous: Their penalty kill has only allowed three goals this season, meaning they are somehow have a plus-four goal differential when playing shorthanded. Tampa Bay is a minus-one (three goals against, two for) and San Jose is a minus-two (six against, four for). Nobody else in the league is better than a minus-four.

[Related: Why there is reason to believe in the Arizona Coyotes]

The Elias Pettersson show — The Canucks’ prized rookie has helped make them one of the early season surprises, and his performance is just remarkable.

 

John Gibson is dominating — But it is still not enough for the Ducks.

He has a .936 save percentage through his first 11 starts of the season, and has won just four games. A goalie playing at that level should have more than four wins. Way more.

Since the start of the 1987-88 season there have been 18 goalies that have faced at least 350 shots in his team’s first 14 games and had a save percentage higher than .935. Gibson’s four wins are the fewest out of that group, while only Sean Burke as a member of the 2001-02 Arizona Coyotes won fewer than six games.

Alex Ovechkin is not really slowing down — The Capitals are not off to a great start, but Alex Ovechkin most certianly is. Not only is he off to a great start, he is off to one of the best goal-scoring starts of his career. His 10 goals in his first 11 games ties for the second best start of his career. The only time he scored more goals through his first 11 game was the 2009-10 season when he scored … 11. He also scored 10 during the 2013-14 and 2017-18 seasons. The only one of those seasons where he did not end up leading the league in goals was the 2009-10 season. What is remarkable about his play the past two seasons is that he is currently in his age 33 season. Players are supposed to be slowing down at that age and he … sort of isn’t.

Max Domi is scoring goals … against goalies — He has already scored six goals this season for the Montreal Canadiens. Why is this stunning? All of those goals have come with a goalie in the opposing net (meaning no empty-net goals). During the entire 2017-18 season Domi scored just nine goals … with only five of them coming with an opposing goalie in the net (four of his goals a year ago were of the empty net variety).

Kings’ offensive offense — Everybody in the NHL is scoring more goals this season. Everybody except for the Los Angeles Kings. Through their first 12 games they averaging just two goals per game, by far the lowest number in the league. This has been a dull offensive team for years now, even when it was winning, but when it comes to this season and the modern NHL the rest of the league seems to have lapped them a number of times.

Colorado’s top line — The trio of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog is making a strong case for being the best line in the league. When they are together during 5-on-5 play, they are outscoring teams by a 14-7 margin (the Avalanche are 14-14 without any of them on the ice), while Rantanen and MacKinnon are in the top-two in scoring, having already topped the 20-point mark. Together, they have combined for 27 goals. Or … three more than the Los Angeles Kings have scored as a team.

[Related: Nathan MacKinnon on breakout season — PHT Q & A]

Vegas is getting PDO’d — I think most people expected some sort of a regression from the Vegas Golden Knights in year two because pretty much everything went their way in their debut season. What’s weird about this regression is the Golden Knights are actually doing a lot of things really, really well. They are one of the best teams in the league in terms of their 5-on-5 shot differential and  they are one of the best teams in the league when it comes to generating and preventing scoring chances. The problem is none of their chances are going in and their goalie can not stop anything. Injuries to Paul Stastny and Max Pacioretty, their two big offseason acquisitions are not helping, nor is the suspension to Nate Schmidt, one of their top defenders. But as of Saturday the Golden Knights have the worst 5-on-5 shooting percentage in the league (5.04 percent) and the worst 5-on-5 save percentage (only .886). Those percentages are crushing them. 

The Islanders’ goaltending is keeping them in it — The post-John Tavares era in New York is off to a far better than expected start as the enter the weekend tied for first place in the Metropolitan Division after a home-and-home sweep of the Pittsburgh Penguins. The driving force behind that early success is the play of their goaltenders, Thomas Greiss and Robin Lehner. Together they have a .931 save percentage that is the third best team save percentage in the league (behind only the Arizona Coyotes and Anaheim Ducks). It is surprising because their save percentages a year ago were .892 (Greiss) and .908 (Lehner). Goalies, man. They can change a team, and you never really know when one is going to go on a roll.

(Data via Hockey-ReferenceNatural Stat Trick and NHL.com)

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.