Dani Scheinman The Hockey Writers
Get Over It: Islanders’ Stability Key to Success
There is no debating the fact that the 2014-15 New York Islanders look significantly different than the “ghosts of Islanders’ past.” There is no doubting the legitimacy of this team’s success this season; there is no arguing that the Islanders’ play thus far has warranted a spot in the 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs (if not the top seed in the Eastern Conference). What is debatable, though, is the driving factor behind this team’s surprising success this season. How have the Islanders managed to win at such a high level this season, and look so drastically different than the New York Islanders that we have become accustomed to seeing in previous seasons? What is the key to this team’s newfound success?
In looking over the Islander’s game results this season, and comparing them to those of past seasons, one may notice a surprising trend. While at points this season it has certainly felt like the Islanders have hit a few bumps in the road, as if they were in the midst of a damaging losing streak or two, those stretches have remained exactly that: merely bumps in the road. Thus far, in the 2014-15 season, the New York Islanders have not had a losing streak of more than three games! Every time the Islanders have taken a hit, whether it be an early-season three game losing streak to the likes of Winnipeg, Colorado, and San Jose, or giving up a total of twelve goals to the St. Louis Blues (who seem to be their kryptonite) in two games during a three game skid, they seem to bounce right back up again. And not only have the Islanders bounced back up, but they have done so in impressive fashion; following each of these (albeit few) “extended” losing streaks, the Islanders have ripped off winning streaks of at least four games (with the exception of a single losing streak at the end of January, although they would follow that up by winning seven of their next nine games). The stability that the Islanders have shown this year is a welcome change to that of previous seasons.
Looking at each of the last five seasons the Islanders have gone into “hibernation” far too often. In each of these seasons, the Islanders have had at least one losing streak of five games or more. In January and February of 2009, the Islanders lost seven games in a row, ultimately losing fourteen of eighteen games during that stretch. In the beginning of the 2010-11 season, they endured a staggering fourteen game losing streak on the way to losing twenty of twenty-three games at that time. The following season saw the Islanders build up multiple of these losing streaks, the most significant a six game streak in the midst of losing fourteen of sixteen games in October and November. Even during the shortened season of 2012-13, a somewhat successful season for the Islanders, who finished with a winning record and a spot in the playoffs, and only lost a total of twenty-four games (seventeen in regulation, seven OT losses), the team managed to lose five in a row in January, a month in which they would only win four of their fourteen games. And finally, last season, a season thought by many to have been a step backwards for the Islanders, the Isles ran into a ten game losing streak on the way to losing thirteen of fourteen games. While some of these streaks may not look so substantial when isolated, in a season that only contains eighty-two games, extended periods of losing such as these have tremendous negative effects on a team and a season. One bad stretch like this and a team can easily find themselves in the basement of the divisional standings, looking up and wondering how so many games have come to separate them and the teams sitting above. Besides the obvious effects on the team’s record that such streaks have, losing streaks of this magnitude can be detrimental to a team’s morale and mental toughness during a season. It can often be difficult to break out of such a stretch, and the losses can begin to pile up as the team spirals downwards and out of the playoffs. The stability and unwavering focus that the Islanders have exhibited this year have been tremendous and have played a crucial role in them remaining atop (or near the top) of the Metropolitan Division standings. But what is it exactly that has caused this sudden change in the New York Islanders? How have the 2014-15 Islanders been able to avoid these large slumps that have been so prevalent in previous seasons? I believe that two major factors have contributed to the Islanders sustained success and ability to ‘get over’ the occasional losses without absorbing to much damage.
Plugging Up the Holes
First and foremost, the Islanders organization has spent years trying to rebuild this franchise, continuously acquiring and developing young talent with their eyes set on the future. Well, that future is seemingly beginning now. The focus on player development and not indulging on high-priced free agents is finally paying dividends for the Islanders, as their incredible depth and high level of young talent can be seen on display this season. That youth and depth has certainly helped the Islanders remain afloat. While in previous seasons, one costly injury or two may have spelled catastrophe for the Islanders, this year that is anything but the case. Last season, through their rough fourteen game losing streak, the Islanders were forced to trot out a goalie platoon of Anders Nillson and Kevin Poulin after Evegeni Nabokov was sidelined for an extended period of time with a groin injury. The lack of adequate depth at the goaltender position proved to be difficult to overcome for the Islanders. This season, though, is different. Much of their depth stems from this youth development. In an article published in the New York Times earlier this year, Allan Kreda wrote of how the Islanders’ “team depth is best exemplified by the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, the Islanders’ American Hockey League affiliate.” Kreda explains that the “organization’s theme of structured play and relentless work ethic” have transformed the Sound Tigers into a distinct pool of talented, young players from which the Islanders can obtain reinforcements down the stretch, should they need it.
This has certainly been the case so far, as the Islanders have seen their fair share of significant injuries to their roster this season. Over the course of the season, Michael Grabner has missed a whopping thirty-eight games with different injuries; their alternate captain, Kyle Okposo, missed twenty-two games with a detached retina; Johnny Boychuk, one of their best defensemen this season, missed six games with an undisclosed injury; Josh Bailey missed eight games with a broken hand; Travis Hamonic, Lubomir Visnovsky, and Casey Cizikas missed seven, eighteen, and eleven games, respectively, each with a variety of injuries. Despite what looks like quite the injury list, the Islanders have not just managed to stay competitive, but have continued to thrive and remain in first place in the division. This depth, built up over many seasons, has allowed them to do just that. Their fourth – fourth! – line of Martin, Cizikas, and Clutterbuck has stepped up when needed most, having been referred to as the ‘best fourth line in hockey,’ and being a force for the Islanders throughout the year. Anders Lee has excelled in filling Okposo’s spot on the top line, maintaining the second spot among all rookies in goals this season, with twenty-three (as of March 11th). Players like Colin McDonald, Kael Mouillierat, and Griffin Reinhart have admirably filled voids on the roster and have kept the Islanders moving. Although he struggled to start the season, Chad Johnson flashed streaks of success, stringing together a number of good starts near midseason in allowing Jaroslav Halak to remain fresh for the postseason. The recently acquired Michal Neuvirth should prove to be a more then reputable backup and allow Halak that rest he needs down the stretch. Having such a plethora of young, talented players at their fingertips to plug up the holes caused by the wear-and-tear of the season has kept the Islanders season from sinking. And it should be no different in filling the void left by Nick Leddy, as he sits with an injury while the Islanders try to close out a successful regular season.
To maintain such a level of stability requires a great amount of focus. It takes a high level of mental toughness, a view of the bigger picture, for a team to avoid slumps like the Islanders have seen in the past. With a team full of such young stars with limited experience in the NHL at all, let alone any big-game experience, one would think this mental toughness, or lack thereof, would serve as an Achilles heal for the Islanders. So when Garth Snow went out and acquired a handful of savvy veterans prior to the season and trade deadline, he hoped to bring with them the veteran mindset that can really help a team of youngsters like the Islanders.
The acquisitions of defensemen Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy (albeit, only twenty-three years old!) not only upgraded the Islanders defense significantly in terms of skill level, but brought two players with championship pedigrees to Long Island. Having won championships with the Boston Bruins and the Chicago Blackhawks, respectively, both players know what it means to buckle down and focus on the goal ahead – winning the cup. The two defensemen have proved invaluable to this team and seem to have invigorated a young team in helping them find an identity. Adding Jaro Halak in goal was as important a move as any, as his superb play this season has certainly carried the Islanders throughout this season, something the Islanders have not seen to often from goaltenders of the past. Perhaps more important than his play though, Halak brings that sense of leadership and mental toughness with him as well. While his start in New York may have been a bit shaky, having lost four of his first seven starts, Jaro remained steady, going an impressive twenty-one and five in his next twenty-six games, including an impressive eleven game personal win streak. As Coach Capuano described his goalie, “He’s got a tremendous work ethic and he’s one of the leaders in our club. To me, it’s about how hard you work when you succeed, and that’s what he does every day.” The toughness and focus on winning can be seen in every bump in the road for the Islanders. While every team gets knocked down here and there, few have bounced back up like the Islanders this season. Their ability to get back on the horse immediately after a string of tough losses can be attributed directly to this focus, to this understanding of the ultimate goal.
Perhaps this mentality was most prominently displayed in the middle of February, following a tough bout with their cross-town rivals, the Rangers. On February 16, 2015, the Islanders lost a tough, exciting game by a score of 6-5 to the New York Rangers. The game was played at home and had the feel of an intense, exhilarating playoff game that only left the fans wanting more, salivating at the thought of these two teams actually meeting up in the playoffs. With the Islanders leading by scores of 3-1 and 5-3, the Rangers would ultimately tie the game at 5 and eventually win on a late goal by Kevin Klein. The game was as tough a match as the Islanders had played all year, both physically and mentally, and was a draining game given the intense playoff-like atmosphere. One could only expect that after a deflating loss of that nature, the Islanders would put on no more than a lackluster performance on the backend of their doubleheader the following night against Carolina. But that was not the case. Not this year, not with this team. The Islanders came out the following night and played a strong all-around game, defeating Carolina soundly by a score of 4-1. This extended an impressive record on second nights of back-to-backs for the Islanders, who, at the time, had an 8-2 record in such games, certainly a demonstration of this mental toughness. The Islanders would remain strong despite this loss to the Rangers, impressively defeating the top team in the league at the time, the Nashville Predators, 5-2, only two nights later.
The veteran mentality displayed by this team thus far makes it easy to forget how young and inexperienced the majority of this Islanders’ roster truly is. Youngsters and veterans alike have played with a maturity beyond their hockey years, perhaps exemplified most by their star player, John Tavares. With every year, Tavares’s skill, killer instinct, and intense desire to win have grown and it is showing in his leadership both on and off the ice. The Islanders’ constantly developing mental toughness and maturity have helped maintain their stability and success, driving them towards the playoffs and their ultimate goal of reaching the cup.
The New York Islanders level of success this season has taken the NHL by storm. Few could have predicted just how good this team could be. Would you have told me the Islanders would have 90 points, and sit atop the Metropolitan division by the beginning of March, heading into a matchup with the Rangers that has playoff seeding implications, I would have thought you were crazy. And yet… here we are! A major contributing factor to the Islanders winning ways has been their stability this season, their ability to shake off the losses and continue to surge through the regular season. The immense depth and strong mental toughness that the team has exhibited have led to this stability and will hopefully carry this team through the playoffs and have the Islanders hoisting the cup in their final season in the Coliseum. Alan Hahn, an analyst for the New York Knicks on MSG and ESPN, and an avid Islanders fan himself, has taken to twitter after every Islanders win with a phrase that perfectly encapsulates this mentality of the team and fans alike: as the character in Disney’s Finding Nemo, Dory, proclaims throughout the film, “Just Keep Swimming.” Just keep winning.
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