On Dec. 31, 2014, the New York Islanders defeated the Winnipeg Jets 5-2 in a win that could act as a metaphor for the 2014-15 season. The team's last win of 2014 saw the team drive play, suffocate their opponent, and at times make it look easy.
Exactly one year later, the team defeated the Buffalo Sabres 2-1 in another "season-in-a-nutshell" type game. Their goaltender bailed out a lineup that didn't look interested in asking the questions in a game that looked far from easy.
The 2014-15 New York Islanders were defined by a buccaneering brand of hockey that turned them into one of the league's "must-watch" teams. That team received contributions from players up and down their lineup. While John Tavares did John Tavares things on a nightly basis, his supporting cast also pitched in, turning the Islanders into a team that would suffocate opponents with constant pressure and a run-and-gun style that few defenses could withstand.
This year, even though the team is nearly identical to last year's squad, the Isles have played a bland style of hockey that has left fans perplexed, frustrated, but still in second place in the Eastern Conference. These Islanders are not earning points per se, but rather stealing them from teams that look more like last year's Islanders than this year's Islanders do.
An easy bone to pick with the Isles is that they aren't driving play like they did last year. In terms of possession, the team is the definition of mediocre and when on the ice, they look the part. They also aren't receiving consistent contributions from players they count on, namely Ryan Strome and Anders Lee.
And while there is plenty of statistical evidence that the Islanders aren't where they should be, the eye-test through 40 games doesn't fail here.
Thaumaturge in the Goal
Instead of living on the edge of your seat because of the team's blood-and-thunder style like fans did last season, we are cowering, afraid to watch as the Islanders are holding onto an undeserved lead and there is a thaumaturge in the goal swatting away pucks seemingly destined to find twine. There is an argument to be made that one of those well-padded soothsayers, Thomas Greiss, is the only reason the Islanders are in decent shape in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
The man that Greiss is backing up, Jaroslav Halak, has been equally dependable for the Isles, but the Slovakian has dealt with some injuries and for the first time since (I honestly don't know) the Islanders' backup goaltender has gone above and beyond and stolen a bunch of games.
The script doesn't usually call on backups to play 20 of their team's first 40 games and when it does, it usually just asks said goaltender to keep the team in games, rather than steal them one a nightly basis. There is no stat (yet) to determine how many points a player is worth, but through 40 games this season it isn't far-fetched to say that Greiss has probably won the Islanders close to 10 points through his wizardry.
It's almost a disservice to even look at Greiss' conventional stats (which are very impressive) to prove the point that he's kept them in the damn thing, because if you've watched these games -- he's outplayed those boss numbers through his calmness in times of great peril.
Other Contributors to the Cause
There are definitely other reasons that the Islanders are in second place in the Metropolitan Division aside from Greiss' mammoth play. On the blueline, former partners Calvin de Haan and Travis Hamonic are playing splendidly. Thomas Hickey has been solid when healthy. An offense that was supposed to have a gluttony of weapons is being kept from drowning thanks to career defining contributions from Cal Clutterbuck and Frans Nielsen. The penalty kill has been great.
And John Tavares, despite not being on his usual point-per-game pace, is still John Tavares, and that will have a positive effect on almost every game, even if his production isn't where we wished it was. You could even allow yourself to believe that the Islanders are catching some breaks that are long overdue.
Safe is...the Dull Way to the Second Round?
Maybe this is an overreaction. One could argue that this safer style of hockey is the only way the Islanders could compete with a team like the Capitals in a seven-game series. They aren't going to be able to go toe-to-toe with Alex Ovechkin and his merry band of goal scoring phenoms, so why not just shell up and pray for goaltending? I mean the team is in second place in a division that features a few preseason favorites.
Hell, if you asked me a few years ago what it would feel like to be in second place in a division at this point of a season I'd probably say, "I'm not sure, but it sounds like heaven."
Yet, there is still emptiness. At the end of the day, it may be about collecting points, but the dance the Islanders are waltzing is a dangerous one. At a different date and time, "The Second Place New York Islanders" would sound too good to be true. This year, it just feels that way.