The Islanders have been trending downward since Thanksgiving.
Whether they will get the chance to reverse that is in question with the NHL season on pause in response to the global COVID-19 pandemic.
But since a franchise-record 17-game point streak (15-0-2) from Oct. 12-Nov. 23 built them a huge cushion in the standings, the Islanders have gone 19-20-8. They stumbled into the pause on an 0-3-4 slide, part of a larger 2-7-4 slump since Feb. 13, coinciding with center Casey Cizikas’ absence after he suffered a left leg laceration from the skate blade of Flyers defenseman Ivan Provorov.
That leaves the Islanders one point behind the Blue Jackets for the Eastern Conference’s second and final wild-card spot. They have played two fewer games than both Columbus and the Rangers, who are just one point behind them.
But what if the NHL is not able to re-start the season or conduct the Stanley Cup playoffs? Here are some takeaways from what would have to be considered a lost season, in more ways than one:
More pop was needed
After the Islanders were swept by the Hurricanes in last season’s second round, coach Barry Trotz’s assessment was that more scoring pop was needed in the lineup.
That again will be this offseason’s priority even after the Isles acquired center Jean-Gabriel Pageau from the Senators at the Feb. 24 trade deadline and signed him to a six-year, $30 million extension.
The Islanders are 23rd in the 31-team NHL with 192 goals scored. Their goal differential — which president and general manager Lou Lamoriello always cites as the more important statistic — is a minus-1.
Their power play is 24th in the NHL at 17.3% (29-for-168). Anders Lee, who scored 10 of his 28 goals on the power play last season and 14 of his career-high 40 goals with the man advantage in 2017-18, has scored only two of his 20 goals on the power play this season.
Jordan Eberle has scored eight of his 16 goals in the last 15 games. Mathew Barzal has one goal in the last 17 games and Anthony Beauvillier has one goal in the last 14 games.
More scoring consistency is a must.
Opponents figured them out
Last season, the Islanders allowed a league-low 191 goals as goalies Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss shared the Jennings Trophy.
This season, the Islanders’ total of 190 goals allowed is tied for fifth in the NHL, still a very respectable position. However, they allowed at least four goals in five of their last seven games.
In general, teams seem to have better strategies to attack the Islanders’ defensive structure. More traffic has gone to their crease, so Greiss and his new partner, Semyon Varlamov, are seeing more screened shots and facing more rebound attempts.
“Last year, being the No. 1 defensive team was a huge feat,” defenseman Devon Toews said before the season was suspended. “I think teams are trying to figure out ways to break us down and find us in more vulnerable positions defensively and kind of find us out of our structure, out of our comfort zone. You’ve got to give them a little bit of credit for doing that and we’ve just got to work with it.”
The goaltending sagged
Speaking of Greiss and Varlamov, the numbers just haven’t been as good this season. Trotz started the season alternating his netminders for a franchise-record 33 games. Varlamov has played the majority of games since then, including a season-high eight straight appearances (seven starts) from Feb. 11-25.
“I think I’ve got to get better,” he said before the season was suspended. “I’ve given up a lot of goals lately. I’m not happy about it.”
Varlamov is 19-14-6 with a 2.62 goals-against average and a .914 save percentage. Greiss is 16-9-4 with a 2.74 GAA and a .913 save percentage. He went 23-14-2 with a 2.28 GAA and a .927 save percentage last season.
Missing the fourth line
The identity-setting fourth line of Cizikas centering Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck has been healthy together for only 18 of the Islanders’ 68 games. That has hurt Trotz’s ability to get four-line balance.
The Islanders are 10-7-1 with their preferred fourth line intact and 25-16-9 otherwise.
Martin, 30, is coming to the end of a four-year, $10 million deal, and Lamoriello faces an interesting offseason question about whether to re-sign him.