Things have changed a lot since Barry Trotz took over behind the bench in Long Island. A team that was a complete mess without the puck was flipped on its collective head and became a defensive titan, helping to resurrect the careers of goalies Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss, before doing the same to a lesser extent with Semyon Varlamov this season.
One of the biggest changes Trotz incorporated into the Islanders was a blue-collar attitude, always making the safe play, with a risk-averse disposition. The Islanders on paper aren’t the most talented team, so Trotz didn’t want them to get caught in situations where they were playing from behind because they took too many risks early.
If your name isn’t Mat Barzal, you’re dumping the puck in at the blue line. No turnovers on zone entries means fewer rush chances against. That adjustment has been the primary focus of most analysis of the Islanders over the past couple of seasons, but in these playoffs a lot more is going on.
At even strength, it’s true that the Islanders are the best defensive team in the playoffs, allowing shot quality against that comes out to about two expected goals against each game. However, what may surprise many is that they’ve also been the top offensive team at even strength, pumping out 3.5 expected goals for each game. Those numbers include their stinker of a Game 1 in the Eastern Conference Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning, where they were thrashed 8-2.
Looking over the Islanders’ offensive numbers, they match the eye test relatively well.
While the Islanders rank 20th of 24 teams this post-season in shot attempts per game at even strength, they are the third-best team at getting those shot attempts on net, with only 46.6 per cent of them missing or being blocked. Most of that success has come within the slot, as the Islanders are relatively selective with their shots, allowing them to produce the fourth-most slot shots in the post-season with 14 per game, and the second-most from the inner slot with 7.87.
They’re above average off the cycle and off the rush, but the area where they’re truly the league’s best is creating chances off the forecheck. Still, even the best forechecking team in the league produces only about half as many chances off those forechecks as they do off the rush.
The Islanders’ aggressive checking game comes in handy in another way though, leading to the second-most chances off of rebounds per game of any team in the post-season. Those chances are almost always extremely high quality, and even two per game can be the difference between a win or a loss.
Offensively the Islanders don’t appear to be an extreme outlier in any particular area, but they are good to great everywhere you look, which can produce a cascading impact offensively, where opponents never get a break from New York's attack.
Defensively, things are much the same. They’re within the top-five in limiting slot shots against and inner slot shots against, but they're a little less effective at preventing cycle chances and forechecking chances. Where the Islanders truly excel on the defensive side is preventing those dangerous rush chances against. No one allows fewer on net, largely due to the Islanders’ league-leading 50 per cent entry denial rate.
If you’re not going to beat the Islanders by carrying it in through their excellent blue line defence, you’d better be smart about how you dump the puck in. If your dump in is too soft and doesn’t get below the goal line, there’s a 90 per cent chance that the Islanders will recover the puck and exit the zone before you ever touch it. The league average is just 72 per cent.
If you dump the puck in on the same side as you’re carrying it in, there’s a 65 per cent chance the Islanders are going to recover it and exit the zone before you ever touch it. The league average is 59 per cent.
So, you’d better dump the puck in across the ice, and it better be hard around, or you’re not going to be able to establish zone time.
So if the Islanders are this tough to play against, what went so wrong against the Lightning?
From the final tally, the game looks like it was closer than you would imagine, with expected goals in all situations just 3.83 to 3.43 in the Lightning’s favour. But the Islanders had a late-game flurry when everything was over where they put chances on net that were worth 0.158 expected goals from Jordan Eberle, 0.144 from Anders Lee, 0.273 from Jean-Gabriel Pageau, and 0.227 from Matt Martin. Without that flurry when the game was long decided, the expected goals total would sit at 3.83 to 2.628, which still isn’t 8-2, but not as close as it may look on the surface.
Still, when you break things down, it doesn’t look like too dominant a performance by the Lightning at even strength.
Overall, the Lightning were certainly the better team, with superior puck movement and more chances overall. However, the big surprise is that the Lightning were able to cut through the Islanders’ neutral zone defence and get some chances on net off the rush.
Even so, this isn’t the breakdown you expect to see in a drubbing, but the Lightning scored three times on five shots from the inner slot, and added a fourth goal from just outside the slot after Ondrej Palat froze Varlamov and managed a shot on an open net. To add insult to injury, Ryan McDonagh put a screened shot into the net from just above the faceoff circle as well.
The Lightning made several great plays that ended in goals -- a couple of them will likely be on highlight reels for years -- but the axiom that a blowout is more often an isolated event than a true showing of a team’s performance seems to hold here.
The puck followed the Lightning on perfect plays, and Varlamov didn’t make nearly enough great stops in the game.
If there is an issue for the Islanders to work on heading into Game 2, it’s getting back to playing with their usual discipline in the neutral zone. At even strength they allowed 28 controlled entries by the Lightning, and while only nine of those resulted in a shot against, all nine of them were from the slot. That’s not the New York Islanders we’re used to.
Whether it was an outlier game, or the Lightning are simply too talented for the Islanders to deal with, is the question we’ll get an answer to shortly.