ANAHEIM, Calif. — It didn’t seem like the typical pregame flattery, in which teams shower opponents with praise both to avoid any bulletin-board material in the opposing dressing room and because the difference between victory and defeat in the NHL often is razor-thin.
No, Ducks coach Dallas Eakins genuinely believes his struggling club should look to the Islanders as a model of success — a defensive-minded team that can “do it by committee” rather than rely on a superstar.
The teams met Monday night at Honda Center with the Islanders looking to extend their franchise-record 17-game streak with at least a point. Their 2-1 overtime loss to the Sharks in San Jose on Saturday night pushed the streak to 15-0-2. Their last loss in regulation was a 5-2 defeat at Carolina on Oct. 11.
Eakins’ team entered Monday in a 1-5-3 slide and concluded a 1-2-1 road trip with a 6-2 loss to the Lightning on Saturday night. Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf said his teammates “quit” during that game.
“What I see is what we aspire to be,” said Eakins, who is in his first season as the team’s coach. “For us, this is a good team to look up to and get a measuring stick against.”
“It’s pretty nice of them to say that,” said Islanders center Mathew Barzal, name-dropped by Eakins as one guy on the Islanders who can make things happen on his own. “Any time a team says that about you, it means you’re doing something right.”
It means the Islanders have come a long way from a year ago.
Then, many still questioned how the team could survive the loss of John Tavares via free agency and how incoming coach Barry Trotz could improve the defensive effort with essentially the same group that had allowed the most goals in the league in 2017-18.
“It’s a huge compliment,” said Anders Lee, who succeeded Tavares as captain. “I think it speaks volumes to what we do on the ice and how we play the game. Maybe they can wait a game to emulate us too much.”
The Islanders, as they did last season, again are leading the NHL in fewest goals allowed, having given up only 51 in 21 games entering Monday. And their defensive structure has allowed them to reel off victories despite some costly injuries. Forwards Jordan Eberle, Leo Komarov, Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Tom Kuhnhackl have been sidelined for significant stretches and defenseman Nick Leddy also missed four games because of injuries.
“In talking to another coach that the Islanders play against often, it’s that you can get some plays at the net,” Eakins said. “But it’s really hard to get that second attempt. That third one.”
Versatility in the lineup has been a plus for the Islanders.
The latest example came Monday as Trotz moved Josh Bailey, who has played on either wing almost exclusively in the NHL, to center.
“I’ve had some looks there this year, some periods here and there,” Bailey said. “It’s not all that unfamiliar for me.”
Another asset for the Islanders is their ability to have a narrow focus and to not get satisfied with their strong start to the season.
“I don’t know if, inside the room, we think that we’re quite there yet,” said center Brock Nelson, named the NHL’s third star of the week on Monday. “We try and go out there and work and play a certain way. Barry has everyone buying into the system. I think the bottom line is how hard we play up and down the lineup and the belief everybody has in each other.”
It’s a good model.