Are The New York Islanders Stanley Cup-Caliber?
It’s been a long time since the first-place New York Islanders were relevant in the push for the Stanley Cup. This is a franchise that produced a dynasty in the 1980s, winning four straight Cups from 1980-83. They reached the Finals in 1984, losing to Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers and since then have fallen mostly off the end of the earth.
The Islanders haven’t advanced out of the first round since 1993 and they’ve only made the playoffs once in the last seven years. Now though, New York is atop the Metropolitan Division as the post All-Star break phase of the schedule gets rolling.
They’re leading teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins, perennially the most explosive team in the Eastern Conference and the New York Rangers, who reached the Finals last year. They have an MVP candidate leading the way. Are the Islanders good enough for a deep postseason run this spring?
John Tavares is playing outstanding hockey at center, with 21 goals and 24 assists. I have him atop my own personal ballot for the Hart Trophy, given to the league MVP. Tavares gets the nod over Tampa Bay center Steven Stamkos and Nashville goalie Pekka Rinne, because the Islanders rely on offense and the attack is top-heavy reliant on Tavares.
It’s not that there aren’t other productive players on a team that has produced the second-most goals in the NHL. Kyle Okpos has 30 assists, and is 15th in the league in points, although it was just reported on Monday that Okpos will be out up to eight weeks. Brock Nelson is steady, with 15 goals/15 assists and Ryan Strong is a good passer, with 25 assists. But when it comes to lighting the lamp, Tavares is the most important player on this team.
New York is getting solid team defensive play, with Johnny Boychuk, a veteran of the Boston Bruins’ 2011 Cup run, leading up the defenseman. The Islanders rank second in the NHL in shots allowed. When you get a lot of shots on goal and prevent the opponent from doing the same, that’s a pretty good formula for winning.
But the NHL is a goaltender’s game, and that’s even truer in the playoffs. And here’s where the problems come in for the New York Islanders. Jaroslav Halak’s save rate of 91 percent isn’t going to cut it.
91 percent might be good for shooting free throws, but not in a league where one percentage point on the save rate is a big deal and rivals like Marc-Andre Fleury in Pittsburgh, Henrik Lundqvist with the Rangers and Braden Holtby with the Washington Capitals are all a full point higher.
To say nothing of Atlantic Division leader Tampa Bay and their outstanding goalie Ben Bishop. Or Boston’s Tuuka Raask, who hasn’t played up to par this season, but was the NHL’s best goalie a year ago. Those are the teams that stand in the Islanders way of a playoff run.
Halak’s poor play is the reason the Islanders rank 22nd in goals allowed in spite of being second in shot prevention, a gap almost impossible to grasp. It’s the reason the Islanders are 28th in the league at killing penalties.
All of these flaws are fatal come playoff time. Not just for winning the Stanley Cup, but winning a single series. That’s why, in spite of how good a story this Islander resurgence is and how good a player Tavares is, the Islanders are a prime candidate to flame out early in the playoffs.