Despite a rocky return from the All-Star and by-week break, the Islanders are still in first place in the Metropolitan Division.
Of their four February games, they have lost once in a shootout and once in regulation and have won once in a shootout and once in regulation. Their first strong yet indecisive game back against the Lightning was hugely encouraging for fans. The Islanders proved immediately that they did not allow the break to soften their resolve or forget their goals. They’re playing to win and to prove all the so-called experts wrong. They won’t give up easily. For a team who was supposed to finish dead last, the Islanders are looking pretty good, especially against the best team in the League.
But then they followed that strong performance and ultimate shootout loss to the Lightning with a strong enough win over the Kings and a painful loss to the Bruins. Their performance in Boston was sloppy and certainly not their best, but they had their chances to win that one, too. The refs’ lack of calls did not help the situation – especially the double minor on Grzelcyk that should have been three penalties, not two, as well as a five-on-three in the third period – and neither did Clutterbuck’s overturned goal due to offsides in the third period. Regardless, the Isles had ample opportunities to put the puck in the net; they just couldn’t finish the plays or get it over Rask’s pads.
Thursday night’s game in New Jersey was a similar story of missed calls and missed opportunities, but at least the Isles came away from it with a shootout win. This season, the Isles are 3-5 in shootouts. Griess and Lehner hold their ground for as long as they can, and the losses tend to fall on the skaters. Bailey and Barzal are the only skaters to score this year in shootouts for the Islanders, with two goals in seven attempts and one goal in six attempts respectively. Nelson, Eberle, Filppula, Beauvillier, and Komarov have also attempted shootouts but come away with no success. It’s not entirely the players’ fault, to be honest. Shootouts are a pointless miniature skills competition. Hockey is a team sport after all, not a game of trading one-player break-aways. The team with the sharper goalie that night or the more talented break-away shooters will prevail. Typically, teams are either good or poor in shootouts. They’re very simply a means to an end that don’t even necessarily reflect the game that was played.
Nevertheless, the Islanders have still earned at least one point in eight of their last nine games, and three of their four games – largely thanks to shootouts – since coming back from the break. Their hold on first place in the Metropolitan Division is tenuous but legitimate with two points and two games-in-hand on second-place Washington. Without Griess’ and Lehner’s solid performances, they would probably still be fighting for a wild card spot or third place. Thanks to the second star of January and another goalie who deserves NHL recognition, the Isles continue to lead the League in goal against and are within the top ten teams for regulation and overtime wins.
By most accounts, the Islanders are currently one of the best teams in the League. If they could just fix their special teams and breathe life into their man-advantage situations, they could truly be an unstoppable Stanley Cup contender.
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