The Big Apple’s two hockey clubs kicked off New York rivalry week in dramatic fashion on Wednesday night. Much like the Brooklyn Nets and New York Jets, who square off against the New York Knicks and New York Giants, respectively this weekend, the Islanders often play second-fiddle to their crosstown rival.
That wasn’t the case on Wednesday, as the Islanders defeated the Rangers in a shootout, 2-1. The Rangers remain atop the Metropolitan Division but have lost four of their last five games. Meanwhile, the Islanders have won four of their last five and have firmly placed themselves among the contenders in the crowded Metro Division.
To the surprise of no one, center John Tavares is leading the charge for the Isles. He scored the only goal of regulation for the Islanders in the victory on Wednesday, which came on a 5-on-3 power play.
Tavares has points in six of his last eight games. During that stretch, the captain has five goals and eight points.
It is hard to find a player scoring more important goals than Tavares. Four of his 12 goals this season are game-winners; only Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin has more. Additionally, in games where Tavares scores a goal, the Islanders are 8-1-1.
But over the past year, the Islanders have become a complete team with multiple scoring lines and solid goaltending.
Anders Lee and Josh Bailey have played very well with veteran second-line center Frans Nielsen. The three players have combined to score 43 points in the first 26 games.
The fourth line (Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck) doesn’t score as often but is equally important. The line gives the team energy and brings a physical presence. They often hit the ice immediately after the Islanders score to ensure there is no letdown in energy. Martin leads the team with 127 hits while Clutterbuck isn’t far behind in second with 109. Cizikas ranks fourth among all Islanders players with 68 hits.
“We might not score twice every night, but I think it just creates energy,” Clutterbuck said according to FOX Sports. “It creates a feeling of teams being on their heels when we’re out there getting scoring chances and creating a buzz.”
But, with the exception of Tavares, it is hard to argue any player as been more important to the Islanders’ cause this season than goaltender Jaroslav Halak. The 30-year-old netminder is 7-4-2 and sports a 2.02 GAA with a .921 save percentage. Only Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby has a lower GAA, which is a big part of the reason why the Islanders are eighth in goals against this season.
Halak is also a major reason why the Islanders have won four of the last five games and only yielded 10 goals during that time frame. On Wednesday, he allowed just the one goal to the Rangers. In his last three starts, Halak has a 1.85 GAA and .949 save percentage.
Behind a John Tavares led balanced attack and strong netminding, the Islanders are firmly in the discussion for the Metropolitan Division title. They moved into third place after Wednesday’s victory and within five points of the slumping Rangers, who have suffered major injuries as of late. That could be just enough of an opportunity for the Islanders to continue moving up in the standings.
In order to make that possible, though, the Islanders will have to improve in a couple of areas. The first is finding more consistency on the power play.
They were second on the man advantage in October, posting a 28.6 percent success rate on the power play. But in November, that percentage dropped to 11.9, which was third worst in the league. The power-play unit is hot again as they are 4-for-8 in the late three games.
Overall, New York is ranked 18th on the power play, but more consistent production would go a long way to helping the cause.
Finally, the team’s defenders need to be more involved on offense. New York do not have a defenseman ranked in the top 35 at the position in scoring. Johnny Boychuk leads all Islanders defenseman with three goals and 10 points. New York needs more from its blue liners.
But that isn’t to say that the Islanders aren’t going to be competitive all season long. The team has the roster and leadership to win its first playoff series since 1993.