Another Cinderella story
Along with the Hurricanes, the New York Islanders are one of the surprise stories of the 2018-19. After losing captain John Tavares to the Maple Leafs in the offseason, the hockey world more or less left the Islanders for dead and figured them for a team that suddenly jumped to the rebuilding track. But as evidenced by Connor McDavid not being in the playoffs again, NHL hockey is a team sport. So with what I recently termed the greatest free agent acquisition of the summer in adding head coach Barry Trotz, the Isles burst out of the gate in 2018-19 and never looked back. Meanwhile, Trotz’s former team and defending champion Capitals were eliminated by the Hurricanes. And former Islander captain John Tavares and his Maple Leafs were eliminated by the Bruins. The Isles regular season was different from the Hurricanes in that they started early and had a playoff spot in hand for pretty much the entire season.
The Islanders the 2019 playoffs
In the first round against the Penguins, the Islanders squeaked an overtime win in game 1 and then steam rolled the Pittsburgh Penguins in the minimum four games from there. Goalie Robin Lehner was solid with a .957 save percentage and 1.47 goals against average in the four wins. And the Islanders top players both produced and kept the Penguins top players from doing so. Sidney Crosby had zero goals and a lone assist in the series. Meanwhile, Jordan Eberle went off for four goals and two assists, and Mathew Barzal added five assists. By whatever metric one could choose, the Islanders were impressive in the first round probably trumped only by Columbus’ sweep of President Trophy-winner Tampa Bay. Regardless of first-round rankings, the Isles are a good hockey team that is playing well right now.
The Hurricanes/Islanders regular season series
In four tries, the Hurricanes mustered a 1-2-1 record against the Islanders. The three games before the new year saw the Hurricanes score only three goals total and get outscored by a 9-3 margin. But the Hurricanes did beat the Isles 4-3 in the lone meeting after the new year. Hurricanes fans will be hoping that the lone meeting after the new year is most representative of what we see in this series.
While I do think part of the Hurricanes struggles versus the Islanders was due to the fact that the team had not jelled yet, I do also think that the Islanders are a tough match up for the Hurricanes stylistically. I exaggerate none when I say that in terms of style of play the Islanders are probably the worst match up in the playoffs for the Hurricanes. The Isles ability to stymie any speed and cohesiveness through the middle of the ice directly attacks a key part of the Hurricanes offense which is attacking with pace. When the Isles get their way which they largely did against the Hurricanes in the regular season, the result is that the neutral zone is clogged up and defensive play starting at the blue line funnels everything to the outside. The result for the Hurricanes was basically that the team had trouble gaining entry to the offensive zone with any rhythm, and even when they did the result was too often a low probability shot from the outside.
The challenges that the Islanders present
1) A hard-charging physical forecheck
It will be more of the same in the second round for the Hurricanes defensemen having forwards, many with good size, flying at them all series. Like the Capitals, the Islanders boast some big bodies and surly demeanors at forward which means another round of Canes defensemen needing to play with their heads up and willing to take a hit to make a play.
2) A system that clogs up the neutral zone
Another thing that Trotz’s system generally does pretty well is slow teams down by clogging up the neutral zone. For a Hurricanes system that has speed through the neutral zone as part of the forechecking system, who wins this battle will have an edge.
3) Big defensemen who push play to the outside inside the offensive zone
Finally, if the Canes can dodge the forecheck and navigate the neutral zone to gain the offensive blue line, critical is to avoid being pushed to the outside without bodies and pucks between the face-off circles. The Islanders are a classic example of the type of team that used to frustrate the Hurricanes by giving them however many shots they wanted all from the outside and with little chance of scoring. The Hurricanes must be willing to pay the price to forge straight to the front of the net.
When you add it up, the Islanders were the stingiest team in the entire NHL in terms of goals allowed.
For as good as the Islanders are across many dimensions defensively, they are not nearly as dynamic of a team offensively as the Capitals. The Islanders finished 22nd in the NHL in scoring and 29th on the power play. That puts the team on even footing at best offensively against the Canes. If the Hurricanes can score and score early, the Islanders could be up against it pressing to generate offense of their own to match the Hurricanes.
Quick compare and contrast versus the Capitals
Here are a few quick thoughts on comparing the Islanders to the Capitals:
The Islanders have some good players and some young ones who are probably underrated, but the Isles do not have as much in terms of elite or near elite scorers or stars. So they will rely more on a committee approach for scoring.
But the Isles are better defensively across the board. The roster seemed to be well-suited to Barry Trotz’s system from the beginning. At a basic level, Barry Trotz hockey is predicated on attention to detail in minimizing high-quality chances. As well as any team in the NHL, the Islanders have done that in 2018-19.
Because of the Isles defensive acumen but lack of scoring fire power, this series has the potential to be even more of a grinding affair than the first round.
What say you Canes fans?
1) What is your assessment of the New York Islanders in total?
2) Which of the points highlighted in the article will be most important in deciding the outcome of the series?