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 firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.