Reaching the quarter-pole of the NHL season also means the Islanders have 75 percent of their season to go.
Which means they must keep improving their game as they enter what coach Barry Trotz has called “the meat” of the schedule.
The Islanders will play the 20th game of their 82-game schedule when they conclude a home-and-home series against the Penguins on Thursday night at Barclays Center. The next day, they will depart for San Jose and the start of a three-game California swing that takes them into Thanksgiving, traditionally when NHL teams can accurately assess whether they’re a strong playoff contender.
The Islanders clearly have shown they are one of the NHL’s best teams through the first portion of the season. Only the Capitals’ impressive start has kept them from first place in the Metropolitan Division.
“Resiliency,” president and general manager Lou Lamoriello said when asked what he has liked about the Islanders’ start. “It’s what you like to see out of a team, where each and every night somebody different comes forward. No matter who gets it done, that’s all that counts, and everybody feels good about each other.”
Saturday night’s game at Philadelphia started a stretch of 10 of 13 on the road. Though it sounds counterintuitive, it’s almost a welcome respite from playing 12 of their first 17 at home.
Not that the Islanders mind playing at home, be it at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum (7-2-0) or Barclays Center (2-0-1), but playing long stretches either at home or on the road can make a team stale. The Islanders already are a close-knit group, but teams bond on the road.
Saturday night’s game also started a stretch of four of seven against divisional opponents in what again is shaping up as a nail-biting playoff race.
“It’s just how it is,” right wing Jordan Eberle said. “There’s only eight spots. The league is just so tight, any team can beat any team on any night. You have to bring your best every night.”
As for needed improvements, it’s hard to nitpick a team that rarely has lost, but forcing the action to draw more penalties is a must.
Before Friday’s games, the Islanders had drawn an NHL-low 31 power-play opportunities. That was 19 fewer chances than the closest team and 48 fewer than the league-leading Avalanche.
Making it even more imperative is the fact that the Islanders actually ranked 10th on the power play at 7-for-31 (22.6%) after going 2-for-3 in Wednesday night’s 5-4 win over the visiting Maple Leafs.
Also, while the Islanders have shown improvement in the faceoff circle of late, they still ranked 26th at 48.2%.
So, yes, the Islanders can get better. And with such a long way to go this season, they must.
Trotz coached his 100th game with the Islanders on Saturday in Philadelphia. He became the fastest coach to reach 60 wins behind the Islanders’ bench with a 2-1 win over the visiting Panthers the previous Saturday.
Needless to say, Lamoriello is pleased with his hire.
“He and his staff communicate extremely well,” Lamoriello said. “The players are extremely receptive and have really bought into anything asked of them individually and collectively. I don’t know what more you could ask of a coach. I don’t know what’s missing.”
Picked from the pod
One of the segments on Episode 7 of Island Ice, Newsday’s Islanders podcast, featured Trotz’s totally honest assessment of why rookie right wing Oliver Wahlstrom, the 11th overall pick in 2018, was sent back to the team’s AHL affiliate in Bridgeport after going without a point in nine games.
It wasn’t hard to read between the lines. Trotz is not yet able to defensively trust the offensively gifted Wahlstrom, 19. He is in his first full professional season after one season at Boston College and two junior seasons with the U.S. National Development Team.
“He’s a young player who’s got loads of skill and he’s gotten this far on loads of skill,” Trotz said. “Now he’s got to learn to play the game. At every level, he’s been a talent. He’s been the biggest, strongest, most talented guy. Well, no one has really taught him the game, for the most part. So we’re doing that work. Bridgeport will do that work.
“There’s certain responsibilities that don’t come natural for him yet because he hasn’t had to do it, and that’s on everywhere he’s played before that,” Trotz added. “Or he didn’t take enough responsibility on his own to say, ‘I’ve got to take more responsibility to be more detailed in this area because it impacts my game.’ He’s having to do that.”
Casey Cizikas’ empty-net goal proved to be the winner on Wednesday, giving the Islanders an NHL-best 11 different players to score a winner this season:
Two game-winning goals – Brock Nelson
One game-winning goal– Josh Bailey, Mathew Barzal, Derick Brassard, Casey Cizikas, Anders Lee, Matt Martin, Scott Mayfield, Ryan Pulock, Devon Toews