What's building here?
The Islanders are 11-5-3 since the All-Star Break, with their 25 points tying the Leafs and Flames for the third highest total behind New Jersey (29) and San Jose (28) in that span.
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Eric Hornick, who does stats for Islanders broadcasts and the official site's "Skinny" as well as at his own blog, is the king of Islanders numbers. His posts are always a treasure trove, and in the above he also says about Michael Grabner's goal last night: It was Grabner's 20th point since the All-Star Break; he leads the entire conference in that time span. 23 of Grabner's 27 goals have come at even-strength; Bobby Ryan and Steven Stamkos share the NHL lead with 25 even-strength goals.
It's fun watching a team when they're gathering wins like this and spirits are high. The timeless "Mirage!" vs. "It's real!" debate is as old as sports itself. So what's going on? The Grabner trivia hints at it, but in a word (or two): Offense and goaltending.
In the coin-toss department, that 11-5-3 record includes two shootout wins, two OT wins, and one loss each in OT and shootout. So even throwing out the extra period they're still 7-5 in regulation, and 9-6 in hockey play when including no-risk 4-on-4 OT.
Al Montoya's 2.02 GAA and .927 save percentage certainly reflect his part in getting six of those wins, two via OT. Along with that, their PK has inched up to 12th overall (82.8%), their powerplay to 15th (17.7%).
Then there are the offensive stars, the expressions of a team that suddenly looks like it has three lines that can score on any given night. For the season the NHL ranks them 16th at 2.72 goals per game, but since Feb. 1 they've scored 67 goals (shootout excluded) since Feb. 1, for a 3.52 GF/GP average:
- The third line features Blake Comeau, who's on the verge of his first 20-goal season, and Josh Bailey, whose put up roughly 40 percent (4 goals, 5 assists) of his season's production (10-14-24) in the last 14 games. Comeau's often debated, and just as often fans conclude at "he's a good player when in the right role."
- The "second" line of Michael Grabner, Frans Nielsen and Kyle Okposo has hit another level of 5-on-5 dominance since Okposo returned to health but is putting up points as well: Nielsen has 4 goals and 13 assists since the All Star Break; Grabner has the 20 points cited above, and Okposo has added 4 goals and 9 assists of his own. But the best testament to that line is the joy of watching them whenever they're on the ice. It's a speedy, hard-working, smart trio of hockey players.
- Then there's John Tavares (109 career points and counting), who Hornick noted last night is the youngest Islander to hit 100 points since Bryan Trottier. While the 10 Goal February boys Grabner and Matt Moulson got the headlines last month, JT has quietly put up 6-13-19 since Feb. 1.
That's all just since the All-Star Break of course, a 19-game segment. But as all who have looked keep pointing out, the Islanders were 5-18-5 on Dec. 16. They're 21-14-5 since -- despite using six different goalies in that period.
So the Islanders' luck has certainly turned upward (if you can really say that for a team that has watched its goalies drop like they were shot by Claudine Longet). Almost like Lady Luck is paying the Isles back for the maddening November where nothing went right and nothing went in. We know Montoya is not a .927 goalie (no goalie is, over the long haul) and the Islanders are not a 3.5 goals/game team (no team is, over the long haul).
But somewhere in the middle is a better reflection of a team that has its lines clicking and its defense healthy ("healthy" in the sense that now only three regulars are on the shelf). Of a team that just might be seeing true growth despite the annual "there's no pressure in March" tag that is slapped on non-playoff teams. Of a team that's suddenly getting positive reviews from its local press [$5 please].
Grabner has looked good for months, both on offense and on the PK. Tavares has looked like he's hit another level for months. Nielsen is Nielsen, Moulson picked up where he left off last year, and Okposo is back. Bailey, always a two-way guy, has looked even better the last handful of games.
Among the rest, the key for Garth Snow and the Isles is to sort out what's real and what's not, who's to grow with and who's to cut loose. There are 14 games left, and 13 of them are against teams with playoff aspirations, a worthy test. It should be a fun final exam, with enlightening results. I don't know about you, but that's what keeps me watching.