Islanders goalie Robin Lehner

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Graziano: Maturing Islanders Need To Take Advantage Of Schedule

Andy Graziano
January 03, 2019 - 2:19 pm
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There is nobody who covers, or just watches for that matter, the National Hockey League on a regular basis that predicted the New York Islanders would be where they stand today, following a pre-holiday surge that has them on the precipice of playoff positioning.

That includes yours truly who, when analyzing the roster prior to the start of the season, even with Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz at the helm, felt the loss of John Tavares and the not so sexy replacement signings would not be enough to prevent a fall to the bottom of the standings.

There is still a ton of hockey left to play - 44 games to be exact - but what we are witnessing is a testament to the players buy-in of exactly what Trotz and his staff are selling. Defense wins hockey games. And a solid transition game coming out of your own zone will lead to more offensive chances, regardless of shots on goal totals.

Even Mathew Barzal, the reigning Rookie of the Year who had such a struggle early on acclimating himself to his new role, has caught on. His improved attention to defensive detail, very noticeable on the backcheck, has flowed nicely to the other end of the rink, and has him currently on a five-game point streak (6-3-9).

>>MORE: Hall, Lundqvist, Barzal Selected To NHL All-Star Game

However, nowhere has the new leadership ingrained themselves more than between the pipes. What Lamoriello, Trotz, goaltending coach Piero Greco and director of goaltending Mitch Korn have done there has been nothing short of remarkable, both on and off the ice.

The average league save percentage currently sits at .908, according to Hockey Reference. New York is sporting a .923 mark, led by the NHL’s leader in both that category (.930) and goals against average (2.14), among goalies who have played in 15 or more games, Robin Lehner.

Signed to a one-year ‘prove-it’ deal in the offseason to form a tandem with Thomas Greiss (12th in save percentage, 14th in goals against average), the two have given fans a reason to not scream for KHL standout Ilya Sorokin and save their vocal chords for more important things, like every single moment of every single game at the Nassau Coliseum.

With Lehner fighting his own demons with depression and alcohol, his story, which he was very open about in The Athletic, puts him as the early front-runner for the Masterton Trophy, handed out each season to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey. He knows he owes some of his recovery to his current employers.

“I had my issues, I’m working on my issues, but I’m working every day to be a better person,” Lehner said after the Islanders New Year’s Eve win over the Buffalo Sabres. “That’s my new journey and I’m just happy I came to a team with a really, really good organization that’s been showing tremendous support, supporting me a lot off the ice and on the ice. I couldn’t be happier.”

Trotz has been content to roll with the hot hand, choosing to never actually name Lehner or Greiss as the ‘number one goaltender’. They are truly 1 and 1A, which was the original plan all along, although hardly nobody saw it working quite as well as it has.

New York has allowed the fewest goals in the NHL (102) and places fifth in goals allowed per game (2.68), trailing only the Nashville Predators, Boston Bruins, Dallas Stars and Vegas Golden Knights. If you remember the horror that was the 2017-18 defensive season, remarkable might actually be too weak of a word.

The only issue the Islanders seem to have right now is the teams in front of them. While New York has won eight of their last 11 (including seven of eight), allowing only 21 goals (1.91 per game) in that span, the Pittsburgh Penguins have gone 9-1-0 and the Columbus Blue Jackets 7-2-1 as they continue to hold onto the second and third place spots in the Metropolitan division. The wild card path seems to be better, as the Isles trail the Montreal Canadiens (6-4-0 last 10) by one point and the Buffalo Sabres (4-4-2) by two points, but have two games in hand on each team.

New York will also have the schedule on their side, and that could play a big role. They will play 25 of their remaining 44 games at home, with 19 of them coming at Nassau Coliseum, a building that Trotz said is worth ‘ten points’ to the team. They will play their final game in Brooklyn, potentially forever, on February 16 when they battle the Edmonton Oilers. Their next five games are against teams outside the playoff picture (Chicago, St. Louis, Carolina, Rangers twice).

But you don’t want a wild card spot, do you? All the suffering Islanders fans have had to endure over the years, from ownership/management follies, building issues, lackluster rosters, taunting and torment, it’s time to want bigger and better things. It's also time for Lamoriello to be an aggressive buyer at this year's trade deadline, but that's a subject for a future column.

Even if the results are not visible with a playoff run by this April, make no mistake, the men in charge are exactly who you want in charge.

Follow Andy on Twitter at @AndyGraz_WFAN