EAST MEADOW, N.Y. -- Lou Lamoriello likes to refer to his teams as orchestras in that success comes only if everybody in the organization is in tune, playing their respective role as well as they can, and following the conductor's direction.
The New York Islanders this season, Lamoriello's first as their general manager, have played like they're the New York Philharmonic compared to last season, when they were the equivalent of an out of sync, tone-deaf orchestra missing its entire percussion section.
"To have success, they have to commit as a group," Lamoriello said. "And this group did."
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The Islanders (46-27-7) clinched a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in a 5-1 win against the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday. They're second in the Metropolitan Division, three points behind the Washington Capitals. They're trying to secure home ice for the Eastern Conference First Round.
The Islanders have won with defense and goaltending. They're first in the NHL in goals against (190) and goals against per game (2.38) after being last in each category last season (293, 3.57).
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Goalies Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss are close to even in all the pertinent categories and likely to share the William M. Jennings Trophy for fewest goals against.
Lehner is 24-13-5 with a 2.18 goals-against average, .928 save percentage and five shutouts in 45 appearances, including 42 starts. Greiss is 22-14-2 with a 2.31 GAA, .926 save percentage and five shutouts in 42 appearances, including 38 starts.
It all goes back to the plan Lamoriello and coach Barry Trotz put into place in training camp to be stout defensively, ready to compete every game and always hard to play against.
"The analogy that I'm going to make is going into a public presentation when you're in grade school," Islanders forward Cal Clutterbuck said. "You can go in prepared or you can go in unprepared. When you go in unprepared it shows and when you go in prepared it shows. When you have a plan and you know what that plan is it takes a lot of uncertainty out, it takes a lot of anxiety out and it allows you just focus on the task at hand."
Before they could contemplate any of that, the Islanders had to learn their roles and follow their conductors' direction, meaning they had to buy into to the plan that Lamoriello and Trotz were selling them.
Lamoriello said the sales pitch was easier for the Islanders to buy because they were so bad defensively last season, when they allowed the most goals of any team since the 2006-07 Philadelphia Flyers (297).
"But you do know that if you get the commitment from players that you can cut that down," Lamoriello said. "That you can do."
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Only if you convince them that nobody gets a free pass.
"It doesn't take talent to commit to defense," Lamoriello said. "It takes work, because it's not easy. The people who have offensive abilities, whether it's skating, whether it's stickhandling, different components, those come easy to them. But what you're asking to all of them is to do one thing in common."
Islanders center Mathew Barzal might be the perfect example.
Barzal won the Calder Trophy last season with 85 points (23 goals, 62 assists) in 82 games. He has 62 points (18 goals, 44 assists) in 80 games, but in many respects he's improved because of his defense.
"He is committed to doing it and it's going to get better and better and better," Lamoriello said. "Once he gets all of it, and I don't mean that negatively, all of the other stuff takes off by itself. He wants to be that player, but you can't let one out of the box. They all have to be the same. And he is."
The result has been a team that has been resilient through injuries, consistent throughout the season minus a 10-game dip from Feb. 20-March 9, when they went 4-5-1 and allowed 30 goals, and confident in its ability to beat anybody when it plays what Trotz refers to as "Islanders hockey."
Trotz, in fact, said one bit of consistent feedback he gets from other coaches around the NHL is that the Islanders are hard to play against.
Music to his ears.
"Perfect," Trotz said. "I mean, the worst thing that an opposing coach or someone can say is, 'You guys are easy to play against.' That's not music to your ears. If you're hard to play against then you're already making it hard on the other team."
Lamoriello said the key for the Islanders, with the playoffs set to get underway next week, is to stay the course, to make sure they don't change what has been working so well for them all season.
"Success breeds success," Lamoriello said.
The more it does, the longer the band plays on.
"We're not worried if we have any top scorers because there is one mission, it's to win," Lamoriello said. "The only way to win is if you get a collection, a group that accepts what the task is of them and they do it together."