Looking at the facts behind the Islanders’ incredible hot streak

New York Islanders centre Mathew Barzal is congratulated after a shootout goal against the Ottawa Senator during an NHL hockey game Tuesday, March 5, 2019, in Uniondale, N.Y. (Kathy Willens/AP)

On Oct. 12, the New York Islanders defeated the Florida Panthers in a shootout.

And so began an incredible point streak that lived on six weeks later, until it finally came to an end Monday against the Anaheim Ducks.

Before Monday’s 3-0 defeat to the Ducks, the Islanders hadn’t lost a game in regulation since Oct. 11 against the Carolina Hurricanes. They came away with at least one standings point in 17 consecutive games, which is good for the 27th longest point streak in NHL history. (They set a new franchise record when they hit 16 last week, and raised the bar a little higher over the weekend.)

They had a nice 10-game win streak going before the Pittsburgh Penguins — seeking a small slice of revenge after New York unceremoniously swept them in the first round of the playoffs last year — defeated them in overtime on Nov. 7. (Consider this divisional rivalry reignited — the Islanders and Penguins have already met twice more since that game, with New York winning both in overtime.)

The Islanders have only lost four games in regulation all season (!), three of which came within the first four games of the year — a campaign that started with low expectations from almost everyone but the Islanders themselves. Now 16-4-2 through 22 games, they currently sit second in the Metropolitan Division behind only the Washington Capitals and sit fourth in the league. However, New York has played fewer games than those above them, so they actually have an NHL-leading points percentage (.773).

The streak was fun while it lasted, and even though it’s now over, the Islanders have sent a message to the league that they’re not to be underestimated — not again, anyway. Here are some of the facts behind their streak.

They’re the Kings of bonus hockey
Winning is fun, but in the Islanders’ case, it’s also been pretty stressful, too. Six games during this stretch were settled in overtime (four wins, two losses) and two have gone to a shootout, where the Islanders have yet to lose.

Depth scoring is key
You won’t find any Islanders leading the scoring race at the moment, but that’s clearly not what matters in this game. Depth is so often the difference between wins and losses, and the Islanders boast four complete lines that, while perhaps not exactly star-studded, are tough to play against.

This isn’t to say there are no stars, of course — we’ve seen the kind of magic Mathew Barzal can pull off when he’s got the puck. But Barzal’s team-leading nine goals, 11 assists and 20 points, places him 50th in goals league-wide and 45th in overall points, which just goes to show the kind of depth the Islanders have.

Another example of that can be found in the game-winners, particularly when it comes to who’s scoring them. Brock Nelson leads the team in game-winning goals with four, but he’s not the only one who’s stepping up in a big situation — 11 different skaters have registered game-winning goals this season, which is the most in the league.

Opponents have the puck, but New York controls the play
The Islanders puzzled the analytically-inclined minds last year and they’re doing it again with their focus on quality over quantity as far as shots are concerned — they’re firing off the fewest shots per game on opposing goalies (an average of 28.7 per game) but coming out on the good side of the scoreboard far more often than not. They’re also defying the odds as far as possession numbers and own-zone play goes.

Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman provided a bit of insight in a recent edition of 31 Thoughts earlier this month, and it explains a lot:

One coach told me his team’s internal metrics indicate that no one spends more time in their own zone than the red-hot New York Islanders. He wondered how that was possible, so he took a look. Answer: “They let you go where they want you to go — on the outside.” You get time, but you don’t get quality. -Elliotte Friedman’s 31 Thoughts

They’ve perfected the two-goalie strategy
How do you truly defy analytics? Great goaltending — and that’s exactly what the Islanders are getting, with their tandem of Thomas Greiss and Semyon Varlamov. Between the two of them, New York has the third fewest goals-against per game.

This is no fluke either — last year’s Islanders finished the season with an NHL-best 2.33 goals against per game with Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss between the pipes, and this year’s duo is continuing the trend despite some raised eyebrows about letting Lehner walk in free agency after his remarkable comeback campaign.

Not only is this strategy proving fruitful in the wins department, it’s also an affordable way to keep pucks out of the net while splitting playing time right down the middle — no rust here. Greiss’s $3.33-million cap hit makes him one of the better bargains in the league while Semyon Varlamov has lived up to the $5 million he makes annually. Combined, their cap hits add up to less than what one of the league’s top three netminders make each year.

They grind down their opponents
In a league that’s shifted towards speed and skill, the Islanders are a team that will wear you down — and beat you up, too. Though the skill is there, of course (we see you, Barzal) one of the Islanders’ biggest strengths is, simply, their strength. The club demonstrates old-school hockey at its finest, ranking first league-wide in hits per game, averaging just over 29 a night.

Trotz has players buying in
There’s a reason head coach Barry Trotz led the Washington Capitals to four straight playoff berths and a Stanley Cup, and there’s a reason he won the Jack Adams Award — the second of his career — in his first season with the Islanders last year. Trotz has proven he knows how to get players to buy in, and he’s got his club playing “The Islander Way.”

“This group just focuses and stays in the moment,” Trotz said last week after his team’s franchise-record 16th game with a point. “They come to work, they come to compete every night, and they give you their best effort. That’s sort of the Islander way. I think it’s a reflection on the way we play, it’s a reflection on the people we have, and a reflection on the community we live in.”

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