So much of success or failure comes down to luck. The Islanders couldn’t control starting the season with 13 straight road games. They couldn’t control a COVID-19 outbreak, or the NHL refusing to postpone their games until it was too late, or the league instituting a holiday pause just as they were starting to play well.
The Islanders (8-12-6) are in last place in the Metropolitan Division and may be in need of a miracle to make the postseason. Since getting healthy, they’ve played a better brand of hockey, but they still have a penchant for deflating losses. They dropped four games in overtime in December and also lost to the Predators with 11.5 seconds to go on Dec. 9.
The Islanders have done their best to keep the right attitude and avoid frustration, at least publicly. But going into the break with two games postponed and three players — Mathew Barzal, Matt Martin and Robin Salo — in COVID-19 protocol had to be deflating.
“You’re starting to feel good about your game,” Islanders coach Barry Trotz said. “The players know when they’re on. The coaches know when you’re getting to that level. And then you want to keep playing cause you’re feeling good about your own game. And usually you get the results.”
Here’s a look back at the first 26 games of the season, heading into the holiday break:
6-2 over the Canadiens on Nov. 4
This was the most dominant game the Islanders played all season. They went into a hostile road environment and took a 5-0 lead into the third period. It has been a while since the Islanders played a similarly complete game. They took that momentum to Winnipeg, where they beat the Jets 2-0 in a game that also deserves an honorable mention for this slot. Then, upon their return to the States, the season fell apart.
Runner up: 5-3 over the Senators on Dec. 7
4-1 to the Rangers on Nov. 24
Before the puck dropped at UBS Arena the night before Thanksgiving, there were jokes in the press box that the game would be canceled. And really, that would have been the best course of action for the Islanders. Due to injuries and the peak of their COVID-19 outbreak, the Islanders played that night without five of their top six defensemen. They also had three call-up forwards from Bridgeport, including Richard Panik on the first line. Naturally, it wasn’t the most competitive affair.
Runner up: 6-1 to the Panthers on Nov. 16
First win at UBS Arena
It came three full weeks after the arena opened, but the Islanders waited so long to open the $1.1 billion building that their first win would have been special no matter when it happened. And a 4-2 victory over the Devils on Dec. 11 was indeed a good memory for all involved. Adding to the emotion, Zach Parise scored the go-ahead goal, not only against his former club, but also on what would have been his late father J.P.’s 80th birthday.
Runner up: Brock Nelson’s four goals at Montreal on Nov. 4.
Surprisingly impactful player
At the break, Wahlstrom’s 15 points (eight goals, seven assists) have him second on the team. Though that’s in part because Nelson and Anders Lee missing time, the 21-year old Wahlstrom has opened eyes, particularly in recent weeks. Wahlstrom has started to look to pass more often instead of keeping his focus on scoring and his play has earned praise from Trotz. He has earned more playing time, and perhaps an extended look on the top line.
Runner up: Noah Dobson
The Identity Line
It’s worth noting that the threesome of Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck looked much improved the last time they played together, on Dec. 16 against the Bruins. Swapping out Martin for Ross Johnston has helped, too. But a 28.6 goals for percentage and 48.2 expected goals percentage, compared to 50 percent and 53.6 percent last season, encapsulates much of the Islanders’ problems. This was the best fourth line in hockey, a group that inspired other teams — including the Rangers — to go out and build their own identity lines. It has decidedly not been on that level this season.
Runner up: Zdeno Chara
If not for Sorokin, things would be so much worse for the Islanders. His play in net allowed them to mask a lot of their issues until COVID-19 hit, and he kept them in games in which they wouldn’t otherwise have had a chance. When Sorokin started the season’s first nine games, he was the biggest reason things didn’t fall apart sooner. The second-year Russian has played like a No. 1 goaltender, plain and simple.
Runner up: Mathew Barzal
What they wanted for Christmas
Ryan Pulock’s return
If Pulock comes back against the Red Wings on Wednesday, it would be just over six weeks since he sustained a lower-body injury against the Lightning on Nov. 15. He hadn’t begun skating as of Dec. 20, when the Islanders last held practice, so it’s not yet clear whether he’ll need time in addition to the initial prognosis of 4-6 weeks. The Islanders have missed him greatly, and once he’s back — and potentially paired with Adam Pelech again — they should begin to play much more like their typical selves.
Runner up: A Kyle Palmieri goal