On March 30, 2019 the Islanders reached a situation no one expected them to be in at the beginning of the season. A win would punch their ticket to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Islanders would deliver in the situation with a 5-1 win over the Buffalo Sabres in front of a sold out Nassau Coliseum crowd. However, with so little expectations, how did the Islanders get here? What truly happened that triggered a remarkable turnaround?
The story of the 2018-19 Islanders truly begins in May 2018. The Islanders were coming off a mediocre season in which they boasted the worst defense in the NHL letting up league highs in goals against with 293 and 35.6 shots against per game. The result was another playoff miss and an 80 point season. To aid in cleaning up the mess that was the season prior, they hired former Maple Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello to become the new president of hockey operations for the Islanders. Following the hire, he would go on to relieve former general manager Garth Snow and head coach Doug Weight from their duties. Lou would take over as GM and the search for their new head coach began. However, the clear cut favorite for the job was Barry Trotz, who had recently won a Stanley Cup with the Washington Capitals and was the defensive minded coach the team lacked. The Islanders would go on to bring him onboard and he became the new head coach.
However, in spite of the new names coming in, there was still one glaring issue. Islanders captain John Tavares’ contract needed to be renewed or he could walk in free agency, and the new coach-GM combo could act as a selling point to his decision. The Islanders would make their pitch along with several other teams around the league, including Dallas, Toronto, Tampa, and San Jose. The decision process lasted a whole week following the NHL Draft, and fans were left in agony awaiting Tavares’ decision. However, after the 12 PM free agency period opened on July 1st, Tavares announced that he would leave the Islanders in favor of his hometown team, the Toronto Maple Leafs. Islanders fans were left devastated, but this would only serve as a spark for the team.
Following Tavares’ departure, the team went out and bought in centers Leo Komarov, who used to play for Lamoriello, and Valteri Filppula to 4 and 1 year deals respectively because they play a defensive style that fits Trotz’s system and can kill penalties. Also, the team found their goalie in Robin Lehner, signing him to a one year deal. However, one of the moves most noted by fans and team personnel is the return of Matt Martin. Martin, a former Islander from 2009-2016, was an anchor in the “E=MC៱2 line” with Cal Clutterbuck and Casey Cizikas. He left in free agency in 2016 for the aforementioned Maple Leafs and played there as depth for two years. However, the Islanders would trade for him, and this would mean that the line would get back together and potentially recapture the run of form it had a few years earlier.
The bulk of moves made were for mostly bottom six players, and many insiders and fans thought the moves made no sense considering the Islanders lost their franchise player. The result was the common belief that the team was going to be awful, forgettable, and finish dead last in the Metropolitan division, even with a new coaching scheme coming into play. The team was ridden off by most in the league with news sources like Deadspin posting an article named “A 2018-19 NHL Season Preview of Every Team, From Best to Islanders” and other sources such as USA Today having them finishing with 77 points and Sporting News with 72 points.
However, in reality, the Islanders have been far from the “Islanders” standard written by Deadspin and have exceeded every expectation possible. The Islanders defense has gelled into a group that has allowed the fewest goals per game in the regular season. Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss have become one of the best goalie tandems in the league winning the Jennings Trophy for fewest goals allowed. Martin’s return has led to his line to becoming one of the best fourth lines in the league. Valteri Filppula has also exceeded the expectation of those when he was signed, putting up a 17 goal, 14 assist season alongside penalty killing duties.
The real key reason for the Islanders success, however, has been their ability to play as a team. Although the team is led by Mat Barzal in points and Anders Lee in goals, the Islanders were able to play their tight defense and get secondary scoring in times of struggles. They didn’t have a single guy to turn to in order to score, but rather they play a balanced attack that can have anyone make an impact at any time in a game. However, even if they aren’t the most talented team in the league, they have still proven they can run with anyone and shut down any offense in the league. According to Trotz, “The strength of this team has been its backbone. Not its wishbone, or wishing wins. This team had to go and work for wins.”
All of this has propelled them to heights Long Island hasn’t seen in a long time. They completed the 2018-19 season with 103 points, the highest total since 1983-84, and the second seed in the Metropolitan division. This results in a first round matchup Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins with New York having home ice advantage in a series for the first time since 1988. With a high powered Pittsburgh offense and Islander defense and goaltending, it should be a tight series that can very well go the distance.