The New York Islanders entered life without John Tavares and made themselves into a better hockey team, finishing the 2018-2019 season with a 48-27-7 record. That marked a vast improvement on their 35-37-10 record a year prior.
The Islanders finished 2018-2019 with 103 points, good for fourth in the Eastern Conference and second to the Capitals in the Metropolitan Division.
When it came to the playoffs, the Islanders stunned the world be sweeping the Pittsburgh Penguins out of the first round. But by the second round, New York was swept by the Carolina Hurricanes and the dream was over.
So, what went wrong?
Offensively, the Islanders weren’t exactly lighting the lamp. They scored just 228 goals. To put that in perspective, even the basement-dwelling Ottawa Senators scored 242 goals. The Islanders were the lowest-scoring playoff-bound team in the Eastern Conference, although the Dallas Stars “outdid” them in the Western Conference by scoring just 210 goals.
New York had three scorers with over 20 goals, including Casey Cizikas, Brock Nelson and Anders Lee. Mathew Barzal led the squad in points with 62, including 18 goals and 44 assists.
Defensively, however, the Islanders were dominant.
New York allowed a miserable 196 goals against, making them the stingiest team in the entire NHL. The aforementioned Stars allowed 202 goals against.
The tandem of Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss exceeded expectations in goal, but the team defence was also on-point. The Islanders eliminated second chances and played tight in their own end, making life difficult for their opponents. The likes of Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy helped push possession metrics, keeping the puck off the opposition and driving play.
Lehner, now with Chicago, enjoyed a great year. He put up a .930 save percentage and a 2.13 goals against average in what was arguably his best career season. He posted a career-high six shutouts.
Greiss managed a career-best .927 save percentage and a career-best 2.28 goals against average, with a career-best five shutouts.
When it came to the playoffs, everything seemed to hold up against the Penguins. The Islanders outscored Pittsburgh 14-6 in the sweep and did all the little things right. Pittsburgh was shocked right out of the playoffs and New York had arrived as a defensive force to be reckoned with.
Against the Hurricanes, the Islanders were outscored 13-5 and the decision of the first round was effectively turned on its head. Now it was New York’s turn to be shocked. They were dazed by the Bunch of Jerks in the final two games of the series in particular, with back-to-back 5-2 losses illustrating that everything that had gone so right during the season fell apart in the post-season.
New York attempted to address some of the so-called wrongs in the off-season, but it’s hard to say much has “improved” or even that much needed to improve. Lehner’s out in favour of Semyon Varlamov, while the rest of the team is largely intact. Lee was signed to a seven-year deal on July 1 of 2019, so he’s locked in through 2025-2026, plus Jordan Eberle inked a big extension in June.
What went wrong for the Islanders in 2018-2019 amounted somewhat to bad luck and a need for a touch more offence. Had they been able to push the puck in the net more, their systemic play might’ve yielded higher results against the high-octane Hurricanes in the second round.
But it’s that system that brought them to the dance in the first place, which suggests the Islanders would do well the stay the course and push that needle further in 2019-2020.
Photo credit: NHL.com