We're about to begin our annual player report cards, draft profiles, and other off-season Big Question fare. But before we get to that we'll put the playoffs to bed with one last review, hopefully benefiting from a week to digest the proceedings.
First, there should be little question that the Islanders outplayed the Penguins at 5-on-5 more often than not, to the point that the series turned on special teams. Although the Islanders were outscored 18-14 at 5-on-5, that's influenced by the two blowout losses, which ... well one you can maybe chalk up to nerves, but two you start to ask questions of the defense and goaltending.
And while some of the opportunities on Evgeni Nabokov in the blowouts were defensive breakdowns, that's frankly to be expected. Every playoff series you're witnessing right now includes goalies bailing out their teams here and there. I'm not sure you could come up with a highlight reel of Nabokov saves from the first round.
The Tide is Turning
Meanwhile, the defense (including the forwards) suppressed shots against, as they had all season but particularly down the stretch.
Throughout this rebuild the Islanders have been routinely outshot. The 2013 season was the first exception, and it was an exception in a major way. We're talking about a team that was outshot by 4.5 shots per game at the nadir of the rebuild in 2008-09. They trimmed that to half a shot per game in 2011-12, and then completely reversed it in 2013 to the point they outshot the opposition by an average of 2.7 shots per game.
It's no wonder the 2013 edition made the playoffs. And it's no wonder their biggest weakness, in goal, was a sore point many of us worried about back in September.
Special Teams Slump
But that's overall. This post is about the playoff series. A series they could have won. They dealt with the ups and downs of sub-average NHL goaltending all season long yet still won. What changed in the playoffs?
Well, the power play and penalty kill failure loomed large, and not just in the Game 3 overtime where the Penguins benefited from overtime penalties suddenly being switched to "on."
Before the playoffs, we noted how the underlying numbers of the special teams (essentially, there we go trotting out shot totals again) raised some flags that the Penguins would win that special teams battle. Did they ever.
Again, that the goaltending didn't bail them out on the PK was no shock. That the power play was so ineffective was a disappointment. It was almost as if the Islanders focused so much on delivering such an impressive 5-on-5 display that the power play was a mental afterthought. Or, that the Penguins PK was just that good.
Regardless, managing just two power play goals on 20 opportunities hurt the cause. As if to pour salt in that lament, naturally those two power play goals, from Matt Moulson in Game 2 and Mark Streit in Game 4, came in the Islanders' two wins.
For Wang of a Game-Saver
Again, this isn't to deny that there were defensive breakdowns on several of the important goals against. Thomas Hickey in some over-exposed moments, Brian Strait after Andrew MacDonald was hurt, and even stalwart Travis Hamonic left us wanting on a few key moments.
However, this happens to every team. In simple terms, hockey forwards exist to try, try, and try again to exploit defensemen. Defensemen exist to try to ruin their dreams. Sometimes the forwards win. And sometimes -- in every game, in fact -- good goalies bail them out. To my memory, after the Islanders comeback in Game 2 (itself made necessary after Nabokov did not keep them from falling behind), Nabokov's play in the third period was the only stretch where he really displayed a run of heroic saves.
I've seen some general fan chatter pinning things on the Islanders defense rather than Nabokov. But if you don't think Nabokov was inadequate in this series, you probably aren't objectively watching what other playoff goalies are doing on a nightly basis to bail out their team's mistakes.
The two worst even strength save percentages of goalies who have played at least four games in the 2013 playoffs are Nabokov's and Marc-Andre Fleury. Nabokov is at .863, Fleury is at .895. The next-worst figures (minimum four games) belong to Carey Price at .901. and Braden Holtby at .911.
That's a pretty steep curve, and it's not even getting close to the territory where Jonas Hiller (.937), Jimmy Howard (.938 through 10 games), Tuukka Rask (.939) and Henrik Lundqvist (.940 even after Game 2 vs. Boston) are playing. And notice we haven't climbed up to the .950+ area where Jonathan Quick, Craig Anderson and yes Tomas Vokoun are.
Now, playoff series are short and it is not in my nature to condemn any player's performance based on six games. Particularly so when it's six games against the same team, and in the Penguins' case a team that led the league in offense during the season.
But the New York Islanders faced a team that led the league with 3.38 goals per game on 30.0 shots per game during the regular season, and limited them to 27.8 shots per game in the playoffs. Yet that Penguins team scored at a rate of 4.17 goals per game.
There was a fun debate late in the series over who had been the worse goalie, Fleury or Nabokov. Nabokov had the worse numbers (in part thanks to Fleury being mercied out of the series after four games), but Fleury had the bigger gaffes. Even on the pivotal Game 6 long-shot goals, the equalizer deflected up off Frans Nielsen's stick (the gods work in mysterious ways), and the series clincher was probably through a screen.
But in a way, that is where Nabokov can fool you on aggregate: His flaws were not on memorable self-inflicted wounds of the kind which Fleury entertained us on a nightly basis. Rather, they were of the "not good enough, often enough" variety. Nabokov was once a consistently good NHL goalie. He hasn't been that in a while, and even in his heyday it wasn't by a great margin. But he had the skills for big performances then and has the remnants to deliver occasional ones now. It just doesn't happen often enough.
Not to beat a dead horse 10 days after elimination, but it should not be a debate what the biggest issue was in the Islanders' first-round loss. And that issue -- tough as it is to crack in an era where there are a handful of elite goalies and a confusing morass of interchangeable robots who deliver middle-reliever-like swings -- is also their biggest offseason need.