All the detractors who said the New York Islanders winning ways weren’t sustainable are continuing to wait for struggles to set in.
The problem for them is that it’s already mid-February and time is running out for them to tell us that “I told you so.”
With 55 games under their belt, the Islanders sit in first place in the Metropolitan Division with 72 points with a five-point lead over the second-place Washington Capitals entering Monday night.
They have the fifth-most points in the NHL and a 10-point cushion above the ninth-place spot in the Eastern Conference, which would see them missing the playoffs. With 27 games left to play, there is still plenty of work to be done, but first-year head coach Barry Trotz has taken the Islanders and suddenly turned them into a contender.
Trotz and president of hockey operations Lou Lamoriello are the logical reasons as to why the Islanders have gone from a laughing stock to the top of the Metropolitan Division. With a largely unchanged roster — minus the departure of John Tavares — that saw a pair of bottom-six forwards and a goalie looking for a second chance acquired during the offseason, Trotz and Lamoriello have instituted a structured, winning culture in Brooklyn and on Long Island.
The Islanders defense has done a complete 180, going from the NHL’s worst defense with 296 goals allowed, to the best with just 133 given up so far. Their goals per 60 minutes at even strength play have dwindled from 2.54 last year to just 1.8 while the penalty kill has improved by almost seven percent.
A much more organized blue line thanks to new coaching will obviously take some of the credit. Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy have been resurgent, Scott Mayfield and Adam Pelech are putting up career years, and the young Devon Toews and Ryan Pulock are showing that they can do more than just hang around in the NHL.
Yet the largest contributors to the Islanders’ success this season has been the goaltending duo of Robin Lehner, the netminder who got that second chance in New York, and Thomas Greiss under the tutelage of goalie coach Mitch Korn.
Korn came over from the Capitals alongside Trotz on the heels of winning the Stanley Cup where he worked with 2016 Vezina Trophy winner Braden Holtby. He had a far more daunting task ahead of him as he had to work with a pair of Islanders goalies who had plenty to prove.
Behind the Islanders’ league-worst defense last year, Greiss had the worst year of his NHL career, allowing 3.82 goals against with a .892 save percentage. Lehner had far more to contend with after a harrowing offseason that saw him face and defeat personal demons far more imposing than anything experienced on a hockey rink.
Working with a defense that was expected to be as sieve-like as last season, expectations surrounding both goalies were obviously low.
But here we are, 55 games into the season, and both goalies have remarkably not passed out despite standing on their heads for the past four months.
Greiss and Lehner are far and away the best goaltending duo in the NHL, ensuring Trotz has a red-hot netminder to turn to every night.
Among qualifying goalies, Lehner leads the league with a .930 save percentage and 2.05 goals against average. Right behind him in second place in both categories is Greiss with a .927 save percentage and a 2.28 goals against average.
As the Islanders have been the hottest team in the NHL since Dec. 15, winning 19 of their last 25 games, the goalies have shared the load in perfect harmony. They most recently split time in a back-to-back on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, both of which were wins for the Islanders as Lehner outlasted the Colorado Avalanche before Greiss shut down the Minnesota Wild.
Most recently, Lehner was the NHL’s second star of the month in January, going 6-1-1 with a 1.73 GAA and .935 SV%. Now it’s Greiss that looks unbeatable between the pipes as he has saved 154 of his last 157 shots faced over the past five games.
NHL teams will always ride the hot hand in goal, which makes it difficult for Trotz to delegate playing time at certain points. Luckily for him, there are no issues there.
“Both goalies have been really good that way,” Trotz said. “Greiss’ personality is just really laid back. If I said ‘hey, you’re not going to play for the next five days,’ he’d be like ‘yep, okay, fine, I’ll be ready.’ If I said ‘you’re playing tomorrow,’ he’d say ‘yep, I’ll be ready.’ What I like about him is whatever is best for the team, there’s no agenda. That’s endearing to his teammates and everybody.”