The Islanders will exit the NHL’s three-day holiday break two points out of a playoff position and with only the Capitals, currently holding the second wild-card spot, having played more games among Eastern Conference teams.
The Penguins, Tuesday night’s opponent at UBS Arena, are three points ahead of the Islanders for third place in the Metropolitan Division and have two games in hand. The Islanders will be coming off a well-played 5-1 win over the visiting Panthers on Dec. 23 but have not won consecutive games since a four-game winning streak Nov. 21-26.
Since then, the Islanders (19-14-2) are 4-6-2, an inconsistent pace that will not lead them to the postseason.
So how to assess these Islanders in Year 1 under Lane Lambert, promoted to replace his long-time boss, Barry Trotz, and Year 5 of president and general manager Lou Lamoriello, who steadfastly states his confidence in the team’s core?
“I think we’ve done a lot of good things,” said Noah Dobson, who continues to develop into one of the NHL’s better defensemen. “We’ve played some good hockey. The main thing is just bringing that on a consistent basis. Early in the year, we played really good third periods but not the game as a whole. So that’s just the emphasis, to play our game for a consistent 60 minutes.”
It’s true that the Islanders are a decent 8-5-2 against teams currently holding a playoff spot. The flip side is the pedestrian 11-9-0 record against the rest of the league.
“I think it’s a continuation on all the things we’ve focused on, whether it’s our systems or our aggressiveness or our structure,” Anders Lee said. “Up to this point, you’re really building your game and then you want to get it consistent. I think that’s the biggest thing is being able to bring your game to the next level throughout the year so you’re firing on all cylinders when you need to be.”
The path to more consistent play is clear. The issue is whether it’s attainable.
More scoring needs to come from the wings on the Islanders’ top two lines, spots usually occupied by Lee (11 goals, 15 assists), Oliver Wahlstrom (seven goals, nine assists), Anthony Beauvillier (eight goals, nine assists) and Josh Bailey (five goals, eight assists).
A couple of other problems persist as a result.
The power play has become, at times, a momentum-sucking detriment. After going 0-for-6 with only eight man-advantage shots against the Panthers, the Islanders are 0-for-22 over the last seven games. Struggles on entries into the offensive zone often have been an issue. So has just getting the puck on net.
Also, a lack of scoring was at least part of the reason Ilya Sorokin — who started the season looking like a very strong Vezina Trophy candidate — experienced a personal seven-game losing streak. He snapped it with 22 saves against the Panthers.
The Islanders were shut out twice during that span — including a 1-0 shootout loss in Colorado as Sorokin notched his third shutout of the season — and scored only one goal in two of the other losses.
Goalie partner Semyon Varlamov went into the break sidelined with a lower-body injury, so Sorokin almost certainly will make his fourth straight start against the Penguins.
Mounting injuries are taking their toll.
Defenseman Adam Pelech (suspected head injury), Cal Clutterbuck (upper body), Kyle Palmieri (upper body) and Varlamov are on injured reserve, though eligible to be activated once the season resumes.
Casey Cizikas (upper body) was hurt in Thursday’s 5-3 loss to the Rangers at Madison Square Garden and Simon Holmstrom (left leg) and Brock Nelson (upper body) exited against the Panthers.
Injuries, of course, just lead to opportunities for others.
Pelech’s injury allowed Robin Salo an extended look, but Lambert benched Salo after two defensive miscues led to Rangers goals. Parker Wotherspoon, who has played parts of eight seasons in the AHL, made a solid NHL debut against the Panthers after being recalled from Bridgeport.
Top prospect Aatu Raty made his NHL debut with a goal against the Panthers as he centered the fourth line.
It’s a small sample size. But Raty likely is the best in-house possibility to bolster the Islanders’ inconsistent attack and power play.