The Islanders do this thing now where they just win hockey games. Like, a lot of hockey games. It's pretty much their new favorite activity, as far as we can tell. They love it so much, they've spent the first half of the 2014-15 NHL season winning more games than any other team in the league, except one.
Thirty-one wins—which ties them for the league lead with Anaheim—in 48 games played doesn't seem like a real number for a team only recently escaping the quicksand of a near-endless rebuild, but we assure you that all 31 of those wins are real. You're not living a fever dream; this is the brave new world with which we are faced.
And face it we must.
The Isles (31-14-1, 63 pts) are 5-1 in their last six games; 8-3 in their last 11; and 15-7-1 in their last 23. No matter how you cut up the schedule, each section seems to contain more Isles wins than Isles losses. Like, a lot more wins than losses.
Sprinkled throughout that most recent 23-game stretch are wins over Chicago, Detroit, and Tampa Bay—three Top-10 power-rated teams, according to ESPN. That run also includes victories over Pittsburgh, Washington, and the Rangers, the three teams chasing the Islanders in the Metropolitan Division standings.
Our point: no matter who the Islanders play, they come out on top more often than not.
Even against the toughest competition, they continually out-possess and outscore their opponents. (This is not coincidental.) The fancy stats and the eye-test agree: it's time we started referring to the Isles as legitimate Stanley Cup contenders.
Seriously. Here's one set of pretty cool (read: important) numbers that back up our assessment.
If those types of numbers were in reference to the Bruins, or the Blackhawks, or the Kings this season—you know, the perennial powerhouses—we wouldn't be having this conversation about whether they were threats to win the Cup. It would be a given that they are.
But because we're talking about the Islanders, it seems that acceptance is slow in coming.
OK, OK. The Isles are legit Cup contenders. But do the players on the team believe it?
The interesting part about that is: they're kind of into it too.
"That's our goal: to win a Stanley Cup," said Cal Clutterbuck after the Jan. 16 win over the Penguins. "And I don't think there's a doubt in anyone's mind that it's possible.
"As far as where everyone is at by this point in the season, do we like our game right now? Yeah. But there's room for improvement."
Because it's a Jack Capuano-coached team, you knew an outright declaration by a player that the Islanders are Cup frontrunners wouldn't come without a disclaimer. (Working hard, battle level, etc.) Still, Clutterbuck's belief that he and his teammates are capable of winning hockey's biggest prize isn't that far-fetched.
Not only are the Islanders atop the Metro and sitting in second place in the East—which are the fanciest stats—after a half-season of play, but their underlying numbers prove this club is for real. Like, for real for real. As of the All Star break, the Isles are fourth in the NHL in score-adjusted Corsi (54.2%), first in score-adjusted Fenwick (55.7%), and first in score-adjusted shots on goal (55.3%).
"We're happy to be in the position we are. It's been a lot of hard work to get there but it's going to be a lot more going forward," said Josh Bailey after the Pittsburgh game. "We want to keep a short-term focus and keep working hard.
"The more you win, the more you believe it. The belief in here is strong and we want to keep that going for us."
So the quotes coming from the room aren't just boilerplate anymore?
There will always be some form of coachspeak echoed by the players in the dressing room after a game, win or lose. This is unavoidable.
The difference between the quotes from last season and the quotes from this season is that the coachspeak-y stuff is supported by a roster full of players executing Capuano's game plans on a consistent basis and reaping the rewards.
As they say: winning cures all ills.
The free-agent acquisitions have been better than advertised, which certainly helps. But this season's wins are also the product of the homegrown talent and a team that believes in the philosophy of its coach.
"We're at the top of our division right now," said Kyle Okposo after his four-goal performance against Pittsburgh. "Huge games, the last couple; those are the games we want to be playing in down the stretch and hopefully after that."
It's the "after that" part that Islanders fans are most excited about. As well they should be.
(H/T @IneffectiveMath for the SVO numbers; other score-adjusted stats are courtesy, as always, of PuckOn.net)