Expectations are funny. Just ask the New York Islanders, who were supposed to fall apart this season with their hero gone off to wherever it is Drake’s supposed to be from.
But now it’s January and it’s a whole new year and the Islanders are, well, doing fine.
They’re fourth in the Metropolitan Division ahead of Tuesday’s contest against the Carolina Hurricanes, a full seven points up on their opponents and nine points up on the Rangers. They’re just four points out on the division-leading Capitals and have a better goal-differential than the Blue Jackets, who are just a point ahead of them in the standings.
That’s pretty, pretty, pretty good.
Normally, losing a dude like John Tavares should send a team scrambling for the weepy tissues.
But the Islanders are stronger than that and picked up the pieces, signing the likes of Leo Komarov, Valtteri Filppula and Robin Lehner in the off-season. They weren’t exactly sold as head-turning procurements, but look at New York now. Look at Barry Trotz now. He’s smiling.
Trotz has his team in possession of a wild card spot and the fortunes could turn ever bolder, with the team an inspiring 9-1-0 in their last 10 and winners of six straight after banging the Blues on Saturday.
What was noteworthy about the weekend win was how the Islanders rallied, showing how it’s done with a three-goal third period. They didn’t cave despite a bad start and continued the trend, outscoring their opponents 22-9 during the win streak.
Trotz’s business behind the bench on Long Island is evocative of the job he did with the Predators, who weren’t supposed to be taken seriously in Music City. But he got Nashville clicking by adhering to a feasible system and pushing the players through it.
The same thing seems to be happening in New York, with the Islanders playing methodical hockey and finding wins, goals and all those other good things. This year’s model has put Doug Weight’s horrid “defence” behind them and is playing with vitality in all three zones, cutting down on scoring chances against and clearing high-danger opportunities against.
Advances can be found in net, too, with goalie coach (and Trotz’s buddy) Mitch Korn changing the conversation. He’s given Lehner and Thomas Greiss the tools to compete, with the former on pace for the best year of his career and the latter benefitting from tighter D and a lighter workload.
Throw in Johnny Boychuk’s leadership and you’ve got a case for the hockey story of the year. The Islanders, at this rate, could be buyers come the trade deadline and that has (again) put them in the mix for dudes like Matt Duchene, who will be traded out of Ottawa this season.
So yeah, bet on the Islanders. They’ve got the pieces and have been assembling a team capable of playing a tight system and uncorking a few offensive flurries. They’re not going to be the most electrifying team in hockey, but if you’re looking for a sleeper to sneak into the dance and do some damage, you could do a lot worse.