John Tavares and the New York Islanders woke up Friday morning as the only 4-0 team in the NHL and as the first Islanders team to start a season with four straight wins since 2001-02.
The Islanders humble captain insisted that it’s only been a week - that the team needs a bigger sample size to gauge themselves - but admitted he sees the potential of something special if the Islanders can build on their good start.
“I think we see what the potential could possibly be if we do the right things, understand the way we need to play and everyone understands their role individually,” Tavares said.
There is a lot to like about the Islanders fast start. They toppled one of the league’s best teams, the San Jose Sharks; they are 3-0-0 against the Metropolitan Division, 2-0-0 at home and are getting scoring up and down the revamped lineup.
It starts at the top with Tavares, who leads the league in scoring with nine points (two goals, seven assists). Tavares is driving the Islanders bus and has recorded four multi-point games to start the season, becoming the first Islander since Mike Bossy in 1984-85 to achieve such a feat.
The Islanders captain has always been a steady producer, but the difference between being steady and leading the league could be having more support around him- more options to dish to and more players to finish chances.
“If you see some of [John Tavares'] points, whether it's from [Johnny] Boychuk or Nick Leddy in the Rangers [game], everybody is in the right spots,” Head Coach Jack Capuano said. “They have puck support all over the ice and they're doing the right things."
They're realizing what potential not only the team has, but they have as an individual. It's our job as coaches to make sure that we maximize their potential. - Jack Capuano
Or it could be that the Islanders balanced attack – and threat from the point – is freeing up more room for the crafty playmaker. Seven players (including Tavares) have at least two goals, while 10 players have at least two points. Granted, five of the Islanders top six scorers are on the top power-play unit, but the second and third lines have contributed as well.
“Everybody is chipping in,” said Thomas Hickey. “We started talking about finding a role and owning it. I think everyone is slowly finding what they need to do. Our guys that score are scoring, our guys that are defending well are doing that, our goalies are stopping the puck. Everyone is just doing their part.”
Josh Bailey scored the go-ahead goal Thursday night on a play the third line generated. Second-year forward Brock Nelson scored his team-leading fourth to beat the Rangers on Tuesday. The Islanders defensemen have five goals in four games, compared to 23 in 82 games last season.
“We've had guys that have been here and they're a year or two older now and they've matured,” Capuano said. “They're realizing what potential not only the team has, but they have as an individual. It's our job as coaches to make sure that we maximize their potential.”
With the added depth, the Islanders are tapping that potential. Boychuk is a prime example, realizing his potential as a power-play quarterback on the Islanders top unit. He puts his booming slap shot on goal at every opportunity. Adding the heavy shot at the blue line has opened up space down low on the power play, as well as given the Islanders a threat up top. The results have been mutually beneficial. In his first three games with the Islanders, Boychuk doubled his career power play points from five to 10. In the Islanders first three games with Boychuk, the power play converted five-of-12 times.
“The defense is getting involved offensively,” Capuano said. “You're going to need [goals from the defense] to be successful.”
It helps to have solid goaltending as well, as Jaroslav Halak, the Islanders first major acquisition this summer is 3-0.
Halak’s numbers don’t jump off the page, but he’s come through for the Islanders in crunch time so far, making 20 saves in the second period of Tuesday’s win against the Rangers and seven saves in overtime against San Jose.
“He’s been awesome,” Leddy said. “He’s been keeping us in games and that’s what you need.”
After Thursday’s win, Kyle Okposo said the Islanders are growing up as a team and it’s evident in the way they’ve handled themselves against adversity. The Islanders didn’t get frustrated being down 2-1 to the Sharks despite a 28-11 shot advantage. They didn’t get rattled during a grueling physical battle against a big, mean Western Conference opponent. They held their composure when they were shelled by the Rangers 21-8 in the second period on Tuesday night. Instead, they regrouped, pressed on and stayed confident.
“I think anybody that's watched us at home over the six periods that we've played has seen our team's grinding it out and we're working hard,” Capuano said. “That's all you can ask from your hockey team and so far I feel pretty good at the way that they're working."
There’s a pretty good feeling on Long Island too, even if the Islanders may not want to make a big deal of a 4-0-0 start.