The Islanders may have lost Game 2, but they’re leaving Tampa Bay with a split and heading back to Nassau Coliseum, an outcome even their most hardcore believers would’ve labelled a success before puck drop on Game 1.
Those hardcore fans then listened in to analysis of their team -- particularly after Game 1 -- and heard a lot of this:
• “That’s what the Islanders do.”
• “It’s the Islanders way.”
• “Well, you know how the Islanders are.”
The New York Islanders have done something almost impossible in today’s NHL -- play a committed style of hockey so well that almost nobody knows how to talk about them. It’s a lot easier to describe a bike with one pedal and a wonky wheel than it is one that just, y’know, works.
It shines a light on how we talk about hockey in general -- about 90 per cent of the time we talk about flaws and where things went wrong, because that’s the type of game hockey truly is. (This is true of coaching too. You’re constantly stuffing bubblegum in the holes of the dam, rather than reinforcing the parts that are holding up.) There’s a lot less to say when things consistently go to plan.
Combine that with the reality that the Islanders probably aren’t Tier 1 in drawing eyeballs outside the local ZIP codes, and listening to analysts talk about the Islanders can be like watching a documentary on paranormal activity. “I’ve never seen it myself, but every time I’m asleep, it sounds like they did something.”
In the Stanley Cup semifinals for the second season in a row, let’s talk about “what the Islanders do” at least a little more specifically and why it’s been so effective in the playoffs.
They’re physical without being meatheads
This is a big one. The Islanders were third in the NHL this season in hits thrown (and yes, they were third in hits thrown on the road, if you think arena bias is why). They bang the body as part of the game plan.
Along with that, they took the fewest penalties of any team in the NHL this season. The two teams that finished ahead of the Islanders in total hits this season were the Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators by the way, who finished 18th and 25th in the PIMs category, respectively. It’s hard to play that way and stay clean.
This is every coach’s dream, and really everyone’s team-building dream -- the Islanders play a physical style but within the rules. The “New York Saints” thing is funny, but they’ve got the statistics to back it up.
Transition defence leading to offence
The big story from Game 1 of the Stanley Cup semifinals was told by a single stat:
What often happens with NHL teams is that their coach tells them to play within their structure, and they do for a while...until the offence doesn’t come. They get frustrated. Maybe not everybody, but a player or two does, and suddenly one of those antsy players makes an aggressive play on a puck that isn’t so much 50-50 as it is 49-51, gets beat, and their team’s structure collapses for a chance against.
No team that I’ve followed in recent years is as consistent as the Islanders at sticking to their system, staying in their positions, and waiting for the other team to make a mistake. It’s not a perfect plan, but in a game with as much randomness as hockey, those moments almost always eventually come.
This was Jon Cooper after Game 1: "Our work ethic was there. Our compete was there. Our minds weren't there. Some of our decisions were poor. That's what happens when you get this deep into the playoffs. You have to have everything working in unison and we just weren't there tonight."
When you get frustrated offensively and take chances, as Steven Stamkos did by forcing the play inside the Isles blue line that led to the Mathew Barzal goal in Game 1, you’re playing right into the Isles hands. When they fall behind, they’re not great at creating for themselves. But up, tied, or even within one, the Isles simply wait for mistakes, then pounce.
Changes in pace
I don’t know that you can build this into your roster on purpose, but part of what makes the Isles offence such a janky machine to defend is that you can’t game plan your gaps. If you’re playing a team that’s almost always fast, you can sag back. If they’re almost always slow, you can gap up. The Isles have such a mix of methodical, unhurried players (some may say slower?), that the contrast when a Barzal or an Anthony Beauvillier suddenly gets the puck seems to create gaps, and room for their offence to operate.
Those two players are lightning fast, and I think integral to what makes the Isles attack tick. That offence, by the way, has scored the most goals in the post-season, and trails only Colorado in goals-for-per-game in the playoffs. They provide contrast, which keeps them unpredictable.
Reliable play from their back-end
This is probably the area of play that’s most discussed around the Islanders. Even though they’re good at moving the puck up and out of their own zone, none of their D are expected to create and they don’t seem to care all that much if they do. The forwards can always trust where the defence is going to be.
For the past decade we’ve heard about the Boston Bruins and their players’ willingness to take a bit less money for the cause. I think we can fairly compare the Islanders D, only it’s not taking less money, it’s taking less points (the forwards, too). Because they focus on being where they’re supposed to be, it makes the life of their goaltenders a lot easier.
I’m not making goaltending a heading, but it’s worth noting that none of this is possible without competent goaltending, which they absolutely have. But the Isles were a top-three team in preventing high danger chances against this year, so whoever plays goal for them has an easier job than, say, Connor Hellebuyck.
Special skills: Barzal through NZ, Pulock bomb
When you look around the NHL, there are a few elite skills you’d tell new fans “you gotta see this” while pointing with excitement. Not every team has someone or something like that. The Isles have two: Barzal’s ability to bring the puck up the ice by himself, creating offence from the D-zone, and Ryan Pulock’s slapshot, which needs to be in the league's next hardest shot contest.
I made this video a while back, but it’s just a good glimpse of how Barzal turns simple D-zone touches into danger the other way. He’s even more dynamic and exciting in this regard today.
Pulock’s goal in Game 1 is all you need to know about his shot. It’s not often you see a minimally-screened un-tipped slapshot just overpower an NHL goaltender.
Finally, they’re the inverse of many good teams. They’re…
Patient in their own end, aggressive on the forecheck
I’m convinced part of the reason people call the Isles “boring” is that they assume “good defence” means trapping and clogging the neutral zone up, and playing passively. That’s not the case -- the Islanders send their players on the forecheck as hard as anyone in an attempt to win pucks back, and play no different than the majority of teams in the neutral zone.
A quick google search shows just how aggressive (and un-boring) their forecheck actually is.
Where they are different is they’re actually comfortable in their own end, which is an extremely rare trait (and one that’s almost impossible to have below the NHL level). So many teams in the NHL have adopted some version of D-zone swarming. They try to create a loose puck or a bobble, then they attack like gangbusters, desperately pushing to get the puck back and end the possession.
The Islanders … well, they’re pretty OK if you have it in their end. Nothing kills a game of keep-away like a person not actively showing they want the object back. The Islanders protect the house well, and it’s when you try to get in there that you’ll experience layers and swarming and pressure. Teams often feel like they’ve outplayed the Isles because they had the puck in New York's end a lot, and maybe even took a lot of shots from the perimeter, but they get left with “nothing went in today.”
A perimeter shot is a turnover, and the Isles are content to wait for those.
While this is not at all a comprehensive list of what makes the Islanders so good -- it’s worth noting they also roll four lines more than most NHL teams -- it hopefully shapes their game plan for those who don’t often pay close attention to what it is they’re doing.
The Islanders are up against what I think you can fairly call the best team in the world over the past year or two, and they’re still considerable underdogs in their quest to take down the defending Cup champions.
But if the Bolts are going to defend that title they’re going to have to earn it. The Isles don’t make things easy for anyone.