The Islanders reached the midpoint of the NHL’s shortened, 56-game season this weekend with Game Nos. 28 and 29 against the Devils at Prudential Center. And no timetable on captain Anders Lee’s indefinite absence after injuring his right leg.
Lee potentially being sidelined for an extended period will have an impact on the second half of the Islanders’ season.
But the first half was a success with the Islanders in first place in the eight-team East Division entering their weekend series in New Jersey. In many ways, the team’s consistency has been reminiscent of last season’s franchise record 15-0-2 stretch.
"We’re finding ways to win when we’re not at our best," defenseman Nick Leddy said. "I think we’re playing very good hockey, at the moment. When we stick to our game we see that we’re successful and it shows."
Here are some takeaways from the season’s first half:
Best long-term news
The impact rookie right wing Oliver Wahlstrom and second-year defenseman Noah Dobson, the 11th and 12th overall picks in 2018, have made on the lineup as they’ve settled into full-time roles. Wahlstrom’s booming shot has made both Jean-Gabriel Pageau’s third line and the second power-play unit more productive. Dobson, after serving as a part-time apprenticeship as a rookie, has steadily improved playing each game, though he’s lost some power-play time of late.
Best player is better
Mathew Barzal’s skating and playmaking skills are undeniable. But, under coach Barry Trotz’s tutelage, he has taken another upward step into becoming a complete player. He’s always had a good shot, bordering on excellent; now, he’s looking to take it with consistency. He’s evolved his freewheeling skating style into more focused attempts to get the puck to the net. And spend a minute watching his backchecking efforts. He’s caring much more about his play without the puck.
Best utility player
Pageau is a luxury Trotz loves to have for his versatility, acumen taking faceoffs and contributions to both the power play and the penalty kill. Trotz will double shift him in Matt Martin’s left wing spot on the fourth line. Or put him out with Barzal to take a faceoff in the defensive zone. Or do the same on Brock Nelson’s line.
"I don’t think I’m surprised at all," Barzal said. "I’ve been on the ice with him now for almost a year and really just understanding his skill set. Fast, pretty solid skill, rips the puck. But I think the biggest thing is his compete level. It’s so high. I don’t think there’s a position he can’t play. Just him being that Swiss Army knife, that’s been huge for us."
Lee’s injury, naturally. The Islanders remember well how injuries nearly kept them out of the playoffs last season. The defense depth must also be addressed because it’s unlikely the Islanders will get through all 56 games playing just six blue-liners.
He’s No. 1
Semyon Varlamov and rookie Ilya Sorokin have lately been sharing the Islanders’ net more equitably. But Trotz has also made it clear he still considers Varlamov the No. 1 goalie, and likely will for a while.
"To me, you’ve got to have about 100 NHL games," Trotz said. "I think it’s got to be a bigger sample size before you can ever say you’ve got a goalie controversy. Varly is our No. 1, no question."
Sorokin, 25, a third-round pick in 2014 who was a KHL all-star the previous five seasons, started for the fourth time in seven games in Thursday’s 5-3 win over the Devils at Nassau Coliseum. Still, that gave him just eight appearances in the Islanders’ first 27 games.
The East Division can essentially be broken into two tiers. There are five teams — the Islanders, Capitals, Bruins, Flyers and Penguins — that are in relatively close contention for the four playoff spots. Then, there are the Rangers, Devils and Sabres.
Sunday marks the end of a stretch for the Islanders of playing either the Devils or Sabres in seven of eight games. Tuesday at Washington starts a stretch of playing 12 straight against the four other teams in the East’s top tier.
In fact, after Sunday, the Islanders have just two games remaining against the Devils, both at home, and two against the Sabres, both on the road. Those represent the Islanders’ final four games of the regular season in May. They have five games left against the Rangers, four of them at Nassau Coliseum.
Here’s how the Islanders have fared so far against the other top four teams:
Bruins: 4-0-0 home; 0-0-0 road
Capitals: 0-0-0 home; 0-2-0 road
Flyers: 0-0-0 home; 0-0-2 road
Penguins: 2-0-2 home; 0-2-0 road