DENVER – Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon’s pre-game comment praising the Islanders’ defense seemed to come straight from the standard playbook of talking up the opponent and doing anything to keep from providing bulletin board material.
Still, given the state of the Islanders’ defense last season, MacKinnon’s scouting report does hint at how differently they’re perceived around the rest of the NHL this season.
“They’re one of the better defensive teams in the league,” MacKinnon said.
The Islanders open a four-game road trip that will take them into the Christmas break against the Avalanche on Monday night at Pepsi Center with goalie Thomas Greiss starting for the second straight game. Islanders coach Barry Trotz said he planned to start Robin Lehner for Tuesday night’s game at Arizona.
The Islanders entered Monday having allowed 91 goals in their first 31 games, tied with the Wild for the fourth fewest in the NHL. Last season, under the former management team of general manager Garth Snow and coach Doug Weight, the Islanders allowed an NHL-worst 293 goals, the most any team has allowed since 2007.
“It’s a credit to us,” center Brock Nelson said. “It’s been a big focus for us and it was right from the first time talking to Barry. It was one of the main things he touched on. We’ve done a good job playing with structure, playing hard. Even in our last game against Detroit, outshooting them, we played some pretty good defense and we got good goaltending, too. It’s a good combination. It keeps us in games.”
The Islanders have recently cut down the number of shots they’re allowing. The Islanders outshot the Red Wings, 48-21 in a 4-3 shootout win over the Red Wings at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum on Saturday night and Vegas was held to 17 shots in the Islanders’ 3-2 loss at Barclays Center on Wednesday night.
“I think we’re playing a 200-foot game,” Trotz said. “One of the reasons is we’re making good decisions. A lot of the times we give up shots is because we’re not making good decisions. When our exits are clean, less shots. When our decisions at the red line and the blue line under pressure are good decisions, you get less shots.”
“It makes my life easier, it makes everybody’s life easier,” Greiss added. “For me, the reads are easier. For the guys, the reads are easier. Everybody knows what’s going on.”
Since Oct. 28, Greiss has established himself as the Islanders' No. 1 goalie, with Monday marking his 16th start in the last 23 games. Lehner has missed short periods for back spasms and, most recently, for an unspecified tweak.
New director of goaltending Mitch Korn and goalie coach Piero Greco have worked in tandem to change certain aspects of both Greiss and Lehner’s games. Lehner, for instance, has talked about holding his glove arm at a different height this season.
“I think they’re getting taught a lot of different stuff,” defenseman Scott Mayfield said. “I don’t know the goalie terms and all the exact things but it’s definitely changing their games. It’s a process and both have handled it really well. Greiss has always been a solid goalie. This year, the communication has been really good. He’s playing the puck really well. I think we’re moving the puck out of the zone better when he gets touches behind the net.”
Mayfield added the Islanders are allowing fewer rebound chances because they have done a better job defending players at the crease and playing more of a “layered system” with their personnel to cut down on shots.
Here are the projected lineups:
Anders Lee-Brock Nelson-Jordan Eberle
Anthony Beauvillier-Mathew Barzal-Josh Bailey
Leo Komarov-Valtteri Filppula-Josh Ho-Sang
Matt Martin-Casey Cizikas-Cal Clutterbuck
Nick Leddy-Johnny Boychuk
Thomas Hickey-Ryan Pulock
Adam Pelech-Scott Mayfield
Thomas Greiss (11-6-1, 2.59 goals-against average, .916 save percentage)
Gabriel Landeskog-Nathan MacKinnon-Mikko Rantanen
Tyson Jost-J.T. Compher-Sven Andrighetto
Matt Nieto-Carl Soderberg-Matt Calvert
Gabriel Bourque-Sheldon Dries-Colin Wilson
Samuel Girardi-Erik Johnson
Ian Cole-Tyson Barrie
Nikita Zadorov-Patrik Nemeth
Semyon Varlamov (11-7-3, 2.77, .915)