The Islanders current 5-1-1 stretch has been driven in large part by the team's improved defensive-zone play, as evidenced by their meager goals and shots allowed statistics during the seven-game stint. The club has surrendered just 11 goals in that span, elevating them to seventh place in the Eastern Conference standings, one point ahead of New Jersey and the New York Rangers.
A quick look at the box scores shows the major reversal of a negative trend. On March 24, the Islanders ranked 29th in the NHL with 105 goals allowed through 31 games. But in the last seven games, the team has held opponents to two or fewer goals in all but one of those contests.
Head Coach Jack Capuano credits work ethic, making high-percentage plays and working as a five-man unit for the team's recent success in their own zone.
“We’re playing basic hockey – high-intensity hockey in our own end," Capuano said. "Making sure we’re on the right side of the puck, making sure we’re sacrificing our bodies, guys have done a good job. We talk about getting d-zone exits as quick as we can, good transitions and trying to tilt the ice. I thought the last couple of games we’ve done that.”
The Islanders have allowed 1.57 goals per game over their last seven. That’s a substantial improvement from their 3.39 goals-against average through the first 31 contests. The Islanders have kept shots against to a minimum as well: They have held their opponents to 30 shots or fewer in 13 of the last 14 games, after doing so in just 11 of the first 24 to start the season.
Captain Mark Streit attributes the improved numbers to all five skaters on the ice doing their part in the defensive zone.
“I think we’ve tightened a lot of things up defensively,” Streit said. “Positionally, we’re always trying to be between our man and the goalie. [Evgeni Nabokov] talks a lot with us. He makes the first save and I think everybody on the back end is a good skater. We can move fast and get to loose pucks. Our puck management has been way better too. If you get pucks deep, instead of turning them over, it’s the difference between a forecheck and being in your own end for 30 seconds.”
"The atmosphere and respect we have for each other is special. It’s an honor to come to the rink each morning and be with the guys in hopes of keeping this thing going." - Islanders Captain Mark Streit
Defenseman Thomas Hickey
added that letting up for even the slightest of moments in the defensive zone can lead to more than one scoring opportunity.
“When you allow those Grade-A chances, there’s usually rebounds off those because their guys are in the middle of the ice and the goalie can’t put a rebound anywhere. We’ve kept shots to the outside and our goaltenders are really good at just deflecting them into the corner or swallowing them up right away.”
The Islanders have been outshot by their opponent just once in the last eight tilts, and are a plus-27 in shots over their last two games. John Tavares, who ranks sixth in the league in shots on goal, says that sometimes the best defense is good offense.
“Anytime you have the puck it’s difficult for them to create opportunities,” Tavares said. “It puts pressure on teams and wears them down. No one wants to be playing in their own end and defending all game. Conversely, I think doing good things in our own end is going to lead to opportunities the other way. You’re limiting the other team’s opportunities and forcing them into tough situations that can lead to odd-man advantages for us.”
Apart from X’s and O’s, Streit emphasized the team’s improved mental toughness. The Islanders have kept the same nine defensemen on the roster since the season opener. While injuries and lineup juggling has led to occasional shuffling of defensive pairs, the same corps of players has grown together over two-and-a-half months.
“A lot of times in the past, when the opponent scored a goal, it kind of rattled us,” Streit said. “But that’s not the case anymore. We stick with our gameplan. The atmosphere and respect we have for each other is special. It’s an honor to come to the rink each morning and be with the guys in hopes of keeping this thing going.”