Islanders center Mathew Barzal (13) skates with the puck as Penguins defenseman Juuso Riikola chases on Oct. 30, 2018, at PPG PAINTS Arena in Pittsburgh.

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Graziano: Highs, Lows Visible As Islanders Return Home

Team Off To Similar Start As Last Season

Andy Graziano
November 01, 2018 - 1:51 pm
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Eleven games are hardly enough to make a valid judgment on what the rest of the 2018-19 season could possibly hold in store for the New York Islanders. Every 20-game stretch, or about one-fifth of the season, is typically a good measuring stick. However, as of this column, we don’t have that luxury, do we?

As the Islanders return home from a brutal October schedule that saw them play eight of their first 11 games on the road -- having to match up against West powerhouses Nashville and San Jose twice and thorn-in-their-side Carolina twice -- they will now have the luxury of playing eight of 13 at home in November. Fresh off a three-game road sweep of Philadelphia, Carolina and Pittsburgh, New York is off to a perfect 4-0-0 division record for the first time since 1982-83.

What we have seen has certainly been a mixed bag. There’s the newness being implemented by team president Lou Lamoriello and coach Barry Trotz -- both off and on the ice -- offensive explosions, capable goaltending and, at times, capable defending. There have also been defensive-zone breakdowns, poor clearances, a third-period meltdown and an offense that has looked plain boring in half of their last six games.

With all that being said, where do we stand? Right on the mark they stood last season actually, with some exceptions, of course. Both the 2017-18 team and this year’s squad, under the new leadership of Anders Lee, are 6-4-1 through 11 games, capturing 59 percent of possible points. That’s actually on the cusp of playoff production, equating to an 82-game prorated total of 97 points.

At this time last year, the Islanders had been victors over San Jose twice and Nashville once. This season, they’ve beaten the Sharks, Kings and Penguins. Goals for are down ever so slightly, from 39 to 36, the power play is better (13 percent versus 23 percent) and the penalty kill is on par (80 percent versus 81 percent). The biggest differences between the two seasons thus far is in goals against and puck possession.

Goals against, with the duo of Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss, have dropped from 35 to 28, over a half-goal difference per game. The pair have a combined save percentage of .930 (in all situations) and seven quality starts (64 percent). At even strength, how about a combined .934 save percentage, including 83 percent on high-danger scoring chances? So far, the goaltending has easily been the most noticeable positive trend under Trotz that can be statistically quantified.

The most negative trend? Puck possession. Woof, it’s pretty bad. In 2017-18, with John Tavares and Mathew Barzal pushing play, the Islanders, through 11 games, had a 51 percent Corsi for at even strength (526 shot attempts for, 506 shot attempts against). In 2018-19, that number has plummeted to 41 percent (415 to 594). The concern here is that, early in the season, there are tons of teams looking to gain their footing and get up to speed with the start of the season. Come December, pretenders begin to get weeded out and teams start playing more to their reputations. The Islanders would be best positioned to cut back on the shot attempts they are allowing and start to control play more before this happens.

On an individual basis -- and Trotz would probably crush me if he knew I wrote this -- only Jordan Eberle and Nick Leddy are off last year’s offensive pace. Eberle had two goals, nine assists and 11 points at this stage in ’17-’18. He stands currently at three goals, three assists and six points. Of course, it has to be noted Eberle has just been placed back with Barzal and responded with a two-goal effort Tuesday night versus the Penguins. Lee and Josh Bailey are each up a point off their pace of a year ago, and Barzal has doubled his output (12 points versus six).

If Ryan Pulock and Scott Mayfield (10 points combined) keep producing, this team can be just as dangerous offensively as it was a year ago. But it was never about the offense, was it? Teams begin their march to the playoffs with defense and goaltending, plain and simple. Trotz, the future Hall of Famer, knows that all too well, as it wasn’t until he turned around the Capitals defensively that they found elusive postseason success.

If we know one thing, it’s that this group doesn’t want to be thought of as a team rebuilding or waiting for youth to arrive.

"People talk about we’re a young team, we lost JT (John Tavares)”, Eberle told Newsday on Tuesday evening. “But we’re a very veteran team, I think. Look at our lineup -- a lot of older players and a lot of guys who know how to win. We’re just trying to keep playing the same way."