Check out this goal from Isles hottie Mathew Barzal on Saturday against the Sabres. It’s gotta be a candidate for best of the year. Not only did Barzy’s speed make a fool out of Buffalo defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen in the build-up, but he also finished off the play with a slick between-the-legs deke that tied Carter Hutton into a Windsor knot.
Pretty cool, yeah? You know what else is cool? This entire frickin’ New York Islanders team. Where once, early on in the season, they looked to be part of that big ugly scrap for the fourth and final playoff spot in the East division, after a three-game sweep of the Sabres, all by 5-2 scores, they’re now leading the whole damn thing.
Yes, even after two years of overachievement, it appears that the Isles may have avoided the specter of regression yet again. Their goal differential is a very pretty +17, they’ve won seven of eight, and all of their various components look just a little bit better than they did in 2019–20.
For example! In net, Semyon Varlamov has improved from being simply a very good goaltender and become a black hole where all pucks disappear. That .926 save percentage through 18 starts is third-best in the league and first-best among goalies who do not have “Andre” somewhere in their name. It’s the same story for goals saved above average, and over in the goalie point shares column, he’s third behind Vasilevskiy and Chicago’s Kevin Lankinen.
If you’ve followed the Islanders in the Barry Trotz era, you don’t need me to tell you how crucial goaltending is to this team’s success. The post-Tavares Islanders’ trademark has been subpar offense mixed with above-average defense backed by elite netminders. Despite the departure of Thomas Greiss in the offseason (probably for the best, given how much he’s struggled in Detroit), Varlamov has carried the burden and helped his team give up fewer goals per game than anyone except, again, the Lightning and the Golden Knights.
The blue-liners in front of him deserve credit too. While the Islanders were 23rd in the league in expected goals against when COVID hit last year, they now sit at a more respectable 16th, despite most teams having played fewer games than them. They also have more shutouts than anyone else in hockey right now, which doesn’t happen by goaltending alone. Those encouraging stats come thanks in large part to the continued good health of Adam Pelech, who only got into 38 games last year but has featured in all of them in 2021, and also to the emergence of Noah Dobson, their 21-year-old, 2018 first-round pick who’s formed a cute little pairing with the steadying influence of 38-year-old Andy Greene.
I didn’t forget the other thing either: the offense. New York was second-to-last in shots on goal last year and 24th in actual goals, which is wild for a team that came within two wins of the Wales Trophy. The uptick here isn’t quite as dramatic, but it’s real. Particularly on this hot streak, the Isles have taken advantage of several opportunities to pile pucks in the net: five goals in each of their three games against the Sabres, and also an eye-popping seven against the Bruins of all teams on Feb. 25. Top scorers Anders Lee and Barzal are both on pace to score more goals in this shortened season than they did in the almost full-length 2019–20 campaign, and, more emphatically than any numbers I could throw at you, Barzal keeps making sick highlights. There’s the one above, obviously, but also, here’s a very similar combination of speed and stickhandling that gave New York a third-period lead against the Penguins last month.
All of this adds up to a really impressive squad that I would not pick against in the East’s postseason bracket—at least not with how things look right now, a little before the season’s halfway mark. And that’s not only because I have PTSD from the last time I scoffed at them, in 2018. The foundation that made the Islanders so bafflingly great the last couple of years is still in place, and maybe better than ever. And, as they’ve climbed the ladder in their division, there’ve been these blips of offensive excitement that haven’t always been there in the past. It’s kind of cool, and I hope it keeps up, if for no other reason than we won’t have to see so much bus-parking in the playoffs.