Are the New York Islanders piecing things back together at the perfect time?
Given their style of play, that’s almost as unpredictable as a Mathew Barzal solo rush toward the opposition’s blue line.
The Islanders are in the midst of recovering from one of their worst stretches of the season, losing three of four games which included two-consecutive shutouts in which they were outscored 9-0 by the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens last week.
In what was one of the most important weekends of their season in order to keep pace with the Washington Capitals for first place in the Metropolitan Division, the Islanders came up with back-to-back matinee wins over the Philadelphia Flyers and Arizona Coyotes — a pair of teams who were stalking the wild-card hunt in their respective conferences.
The defense and goaltending, led by Robin Lehner, shored up, allowing two goals to the Flyers in Philadelphia before shutting out the Coyotes at Nassau Coliseum on Sunday. It was Lehner’s fifth shutout of the season, equalling his teammate Thomas Greiss’ total this year. The combined 10 shutouts are the most by any NHL team this season.
It is no coincidence that the return to defensive form came with the reintroduction of veteran defenseman Johnny Boychuk. The 35-year-old missed six games from Mar. 11-21 after suffering an upper-body injury from a vicious hit from Philadelphia’s Jake Voracek.
“When it comes to Johnny… it’s not always pretty, but when it comes to those intangibles, those big moments, block a shot, sacrifice himself… that’s what he does,” head coach Barry Trotz said. “I think he brings an energy to the room and there’s a reason why he’s one of our leaders.”
For an Islanders offense that continues to sputter, especially on an inept power-play unit that has scored just once on its last 37 opportunities, the defense takes some pressure off as things get down to crunch time.
That very defense and stellar goaltending also make the Islanders an incredibly difficult team to beat regardless of offensive production.
With six games remaining, the Islanders are just a single point behind the Washington Capitals for the division lead. Should they move past the defending Stanley Cup champs, it will be the first time since 1988 that they will win the division.
However, New York has yet to clinch a spot in the postseason but will be able to take a giant step toward doing so with a win over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday night.
The Islanders currently sit nine points ahead of the Blue Jackets, who sit two points behind the Montreal Canadiens for the final wild-card spot in the East.
A regulation win would give New York an 11-point cushion over the Blue Jackets who will have six more games to play after that. That would all but secure the team’s first playoff berth in three years.