Islanders give Lane Lambert credit for weathering storm
WASHINGTON — The Islanders entered Wednesday night’s game against the Capitals at Capital One Arena with a 92.8% chance of qualifying for the playoffs, per Hockey-Reference.com, a stark turnaround since a 2-8-3 skid to start 2023 left them six points out of a postseason spot on Jan. 26.
There are on-ice reasons, perhaps most importantly defenseman Adam Pelech and top-six right wing Kyle Palmieri returning from injuries. But how first-year coach Lane Lambert navigated the team through that troubling stretch — and how the Islanders are now succeeding without injured top-line playmaker Mathew Barzal — also can’t be ignored.
Wednesday marked Lambert’s first return to Washington as a head coach since helping Barry Trotz lead the Capitals to the franchise’s only Stanley Cup in 2018. Lambert served as Trotz’s associate coach with the Islanders the past four seasons.
“Our meetings and the message that he would send were positive overall,” Matt Martin told Newsday of getting through the January doldrums. “He would really spend a lot of time just keeping us up and stressing that we will come out of it. We had a few team-building things go on throughout that stretch. Just anything to get some life in the room. I think they handled that extremely well because it was looking bleak there for a little while.”
The Islanders now hold the Eastern Conference’s first wild-card spot as they opened a three-game road trip that also includes a weekend back-to-back against the three-time defending conference champion Lightning and the Metropolitan Division-leading Hurricanes, which could be a first-round playoff preview.
The Islanders entered Wednesday 15-6-4 since Jan. 27.
“He’s been pretty solid,” defenseman Ryan Pulock said of Lambert, who served on Trotz’s staffs in Nashville from 2011-14 and with the Capitals from 2014-18. “You can prepare yourself as much as possible. You can get a lot of experience being an assistant or being a head coach in the minors. But I think until you’re actually into the 82-game grind [it’s hard].
“We’ve been fighting for a playoff spot for the last three months where it’s really been down to the wire. There’s a lot of ups and downs that come with. As a coach, you’ve got to ride that. I think he’s done a pretty good job.”
Pulock added Lambert has done a good job both in terms of how he handled the room through the down stretch in January and how he subsequently tweaked his system to tighten the team’s play defensively.
“It’s about trying to stay positive,” Pulock said. “Being hard on guys but not too hard. Trying to find the positives and move forward. We went through some patches. We were missing some key players. We weren’t as sharp as we needed to be. But I think a couple of tweaks here and there and we were able to find it. The last few months, we’ve played some pretty consistent, pretty good hockey.”
As for returning to Washington as a head coach for the first time, Lambert said he didn’t make that connection.
“We had some good memories, Barry and I, here,” Lambert said. “We’ve been back here so many times that this is no different. I never really even thought of that.”
That wasn’t just coach speak. Players didn’t make the connection, either.
“I don’t know if that’s something we’ve really thought about just being that’s it’s been so long since he’s been here,” Brock Nelson said. “He just had ‘associate,’ he wasn’t the head coach. But he still had his hands all over the team, impacting everything. It kind of feels like we’ve already broken down that first game back with him.”