EDMONTON — The New York Islanders are proof that you can cut back on goals against and turn everything around in a relative hurry. From worst to first in goals against, they’re sitting pretty atop the Metropolitan Division, a place nobody predicted they would ascend to this soon after hiring head coach Barry Trotz.
They are also, however, an example that if you let your foot off the gas for even 48 hours, things can unravel the way did this week in Alberta.
“We’re more structured, and everyone is buying in,” defenceman Johnny Boychuk said, before a 4-3 overtime loss in Edmonton Thursday night. “It doesn’t matter who is scoring, it’s just a matter of winning, the structure, the discipline… Just playing together as a team.”
The Islanders allowed the most goals in the NHL last season. This year, they’ve allowed the least. From minus-32 to plus-28 — it’s like stepping off a direct flight from Whitehorse to Miami, and the weather, they’re finding, is a lot nicer in first place than it was somewhere near the basement.
All of that was going along swimmingly until the Islanders’ plane landed in Calgary a few days ago. New York was barely able to stay in the same rink as Calgary in a 4-2 loss Wednesday, and then it was fairly dominated by Edmonton on Thursday, despite grabbing a point in a game decided by Connor McDavid’s overtime winner.
“We’re having a good season, we’re playing well,” stated goalie Robin Lehner, who was peppered with 41 shots on goal Thursday, as the Oilers rattled off 77 shot attempts. “But we have to recognize that the last few games we’ve gotten away from what makes us successful.
“Today was up there for me, as one of the hardest games I’ve had this year. It felt like they were in our zone for the whole game … circling, circling, circling… They had a bunch of looks.
“We’re a consistent, simple hockey team that works really hard. All lines. Yeah, this is not how we play. We’ve got to fix it. This is not good enough.”
The Islanders are a legit good team, and good teams don’t let slides like this one last. Not heading into a Saturday night tilt against a Vancouver team that sits 18 points south of New York in the standings.
“We’re a good team. There’s no one that can say anything else,” Lehner said. “We’re having two (bad) games, and every single team in the league has that. But we’ve got to recognize … that this is not our hockey. I’m confident in this group. We’re going to come out of it against Vancouver.
“This wasn’t good enough.”
The Oilers took an early 2-0 lead, but trailed 3-2 after 20:00. They didn’t tie the game until Oscar Klefbom’s goal at 17:08 of the third period, but in the interim, the Islanders spent most of the night on their heels.
Trotz downplayed the performance publicly, but you know he won’t gloss over the fact that Calgary and Edmonton were the better teams in an Alberta swing the Isles had expected more from. This was the Islanders’ first loss in 10 back-ends of back-to-backs, and a rare blown lead to boot.
“(Trotz) has a great track record, winning a Cup last year, fourth on the wins list. He has so much respect on this locker room. I’ve learned a lot in the few months we’ve been together,” said Matt Barzal before the game. “When we have a lead, he just knows how to coach to win the game. As a young guy coming in, I had some bad habits from last year. Things that just aren’t going to translate into winning and playoff hockey. He’s definitely fixed that for myself, and for the group as well.”
Barzal would go minus-3 later that night.
“I think we played way too good not to win this game,” said Klefbom, whose team has actually been playing pretty well lately and not been rewarded. “It is easy to get frustrated when you play well but don’t get any points out of it. Today was a good night for us to get a lot of confidence and a boost. I think we did a lot of good stuff. It feels very good to get two points.”