We’ve only just begun the second month of the NHL season, so this is a weird time to be marking halfway points. That said, with seven down and six to go, the New York Islanders have tipped the balance on their record-setting 13-game roadie to start the year.
And, as has become the norm with this team in the past few years, the Isles are doing just fine thanks very much under circumstances that might crush squads with weaker spines.
New York is spending the first month-and-a-half in hotels — it’s the longest road trip to start the year for any team in league history — so the finishing touches can be put on UBS Arena. On Nov. 20, what felt like a decades-long subplot — the Islanders’ search for a permanent home — will finally come to a permanent resolution when the Long Islanders open their new digs against their old rivals, the New York Rangers host the Calgary Flames. (Actually, the Isles’ first-ever home contest was against their expansion cousins, the Atlanta Flames, so there is some completely counter-intuitive symmetry here).
On Saturday, New York picked up a point in a 3-2 shootout loss to the Nashville Predators. After getting knocked around in their first two games of the year by a pair of clubs — The Florida Panthers and Carolina Hurricanes — who have been fire all season, the Islanders have now pocketed at least a point in five consecutive contests. Given they’ve been the visitor every single time out, New York’s 3-2-2 record is more than respectable. If it can maintain that pace through the final half-dozen road games ahead, it’s fair to believe New York can climb the ranks in the competitive Metropolitan Division when it plays basically 60 percent of its final 69 games at home with the last change.
We sort of default to defining New York as a will-over-skill group that always finds a way to be greater than the sum of its parts. More and more of those parts, though, are starting to look like stars as opposed to cogs in a wheel. Sophomore goalie Ilya Sorokin has a .963 save percentage in his past five outings and, after playing every minute of the season so far, the Russian will soon get some rest as battery and country mate Semyon Varlamov returns from the injured list.
The youngest player on the club, Oliver Wahlstrom, is also one of the most talented. The 21-year-old notched his team-leading fourth goal versus the Preds and the shot he made to bag it tells you all you need to know about his mitts.
New York’s other tally in Nashville came from 24-year-old Anthony Beauvillier, a 2015 first-rounder who scored at a 26-goal pace last year and — with three on the board this season — could easily push into the 30s this season. You throw an injection of scoring from these youngsters into the rock-solid infrastructure built by GM Lou Lamoriello and coach Barry Trotz, and you get a team ready to transition from tough out to favourite.
The GM and coach, of course, joined the Islanders in 2018, right before then-captain John Tavares departed as a free agent. That was supposed to sink an organization that had one playoff round win in 25 years further into oblivion; instead, the Isles haven’t missed the playoffs since Tavares bolted. New York has lost final-four series to the eventual Cup-champion Tampa Bay Lightning each of the past two post-seasons, and nobody pushed the Bolts harder than the Islanders did in a seven-game set last spring.
Combine the on-ice results with the clout Trotz and Lamoriello have and you might conclude the Isles — like the 2000s Senators and 2010s Sharks before them — have assumed the mantle of a team you respect and give the benefit of the doubt to most despite not having a championship in its recent past. It’s a backhanded compliment, of course, but given the upward trajectory of the organization, it’s a label the Islanders are perfectly capable of shedding.
• Speaking of the Metro, man, is that shaping up to be a group of death this year. Despite the fact it houses the only perfect team left in the league — the 8-0-0 Carolina Hurricanes — there’s only an eight point gap between the Canes and the bottom of the division. Every Metro squad is .500 or better. The Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins are actually in the basement right now, but you already know how we feel about New York and the Penguins just welcomed Sidney Crosby back on Saturday. New Jersey is hanging in despite Jack Hughes being on the shelf and Columbus continues to fight and claw for every inch of ice.
Good luck, everyone.
• Let’s get a stick tap for the San Jose Sharks, who lost their coach and a trainer’s room worth of bodies due to COVID-19 protocol right before puck drop versus the Winnipeg Jets on Saturday night. Despite that, with Manitoba boy James Reimer shining in net, the plucky Sharks left town with a 2-1 overtime victory after Timo Meier bagged a brace.
Passing the something with “Flash” in its nickname is never easy, but Ryan Getzlaf is officially Orange County’s new “Mr. Hockey” after recording an assist on Sunday afternoon to usurp Teemu Selanne as the all-time franchise scoring leader in Anaheim. The Ducks captain is only 11 points shy of 1,000 for his career, so the next milestone is dead ahead.
Red and White Power Rankings
1. Calgary Flames (6-1-1): After blanking the Flyers 4-0 on Saturday, Calgary has gone 122:59 without surrendering a goal.
2. Edmonton Oilers (6-1-0): The Oilers have at least one man-advantage marker in all seven games they’ve played this year. Both goals in Saturday’s 2-1 win over Vancouver were power-play markers.
3. Winnipeg Jets (4-2-2): What a start to the year for Kyle Connor, who scored the only Jets goal in Saturday’s 2-1 loss to the San Jose Sharks. The soon-to-be U.S. Olympian has an even seven goals and seven helpers for 14 points in seven contests this season.
4. Toronto Maple Leafs (4-4-1): The fact Morgan Rielly agreed to an eight-year extension at an annual hit way below market value cap-wise had to be one of the best Friday news drops in Leafs history.
5. Ottawa Senators (3-4-0): Friday’s 38-save performance from Filip Gustavsson during a 4-1 victory in Dallas was just what the doctor ordered for this club.
6. Vancouver Canucks (3-5-1): Three contests into a seven-game homestand, the Canucks are still in search of a domestic ‘W.’
7. Montreal Canadiens (2-8-0): I mean, the 2022 NHL Draft is in Montreal; it’s https://www.sportsnet.ca/juniors/longform/shane-wrights-exceptional-path-to-the-top-of-the-nhl-draft-board/ #shameforShane time, Wright? Right!
The Week Ahead
• After a middling start (by their standards) the Tampa Bay Lighting have won their past two games by a combined score of 10-2. They host goal-scoring king Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals in a tasty matchup Monday night.
• With Crosby back, the Penguins will be looking to snap a three-game home losing streak when they host their Keystone State rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers, on Thursday. Something tells me the juices will be flowing for that one.