Isles First-Half Rewind and Second-Half Preview

It’s been a heck of a first half for the Islanders as they coast into the All-Star break with a 31-14-1 record, good for first place in the Metropolitan Division.  They finished up the nominal first half with wins in five of their last six and own a tidy 15-2-0 record against division foes.  The team is doing everything it can to make the last season at the Nassau Coliseum a memorable one. 

So as the team takes a well-deserved break before the final second half push kicks off next Tuesday against the Rangers, it’s time to take a look back at what happened over the season’s first 46 games and preview ahead to the final 36 regular season games.

What went right?

Umm, just about everything?  Goaltender Jaroslav Halak was everything the Islanders could have hoped for and more (25-9-0, 2.41 goals against average, .910 save percentage) despite the fact that he was less than stellar his past three games (more about this later).  John Tavares has notched 21 goals and 24 assists so far and has heated up significantly recently.  The newcomers on defense, Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk, have not only stabilized the blue line, but have brought a championship swagger to the roster it sorely lacked.  The depth on offense is arguably the best in the conference with Ryan Strome, Anders Lee, Brock Nelson, and Josh Bailey, amongst others, stepping up with the secondary scoring the team seemed to lack in previous seasons.  The fourth line is the best fourth line in the game.

Honestly, when you have 63 points through 46 games, chances are there are a lot of things going well.  This is no different with the Islanders this season.  Even the most optimistic Islander fan couldn't have predicted this before the season started.

First-half MVP

You can make a case for a handful of players including Halak, Tavares, or Leddy, and I wouldn’t argue with you at all.  But for this writer’s money, the acquisition and play of Johnny Boychuk has absolutely transformed this team overnight from a fringe playoff contender to legit conference power.  He doesn’t have the flashiest numbers (4 goals, 18 assists, +15 rating in 36 games), but is an absolute rock on the blue line for an Islander squad that has lacked his kind of “fortitude” for quite some time.  He’s physical and his display against the Blue Jackets late in the game firing pucks away on the power play after Columbus acted upset was priceless.  The man is an impending free agent this summer and Garth Snow needs to do everything in his power to sign him long-term.

Turning Point?

The team was 6-5-0, having just dropped its third in a row in San Jose.  They played better against the Sharks, but with the Ducks and Kings on the horizon on back to back nights, there was a good chance the Islanders would have been under .500 before we knew it and chatter of another November collapse would have spread like wild fire.  Instead the Islanders went on to beat the Ducks in overtime, handled the Kings in a shoot-out, and helped spark a run winning 13 out of 15, putting to bed any talk of a potential November collapse and serving notice to the rest of the league that these weren’t the same old Islanders.

3 Second-half Questions:

  1. Can Halak get to the playoffs in one piece?  He started to look worn down the past weekend, probably as a result of starting 10 of the team’s last 11 games, including a back-to-back Friday and Saturday against Pittsburgh and Montreal.  It was a situation that screamed for a Chad Johnson start, and it’s abundantly clear the coaching staff has zero confidence in Johnson.  Johnson won his last start in Columbus on January 10th, but has otherwise been brutal, posing a 6-5-0 record, 3.38 goals against average, and .870 save percentage.  Halak has only started more than 50 games once in a season and has a history of injuries.  He earned an All-Star nod this week in Columbus, but the additional rest should be a real boost for him.  However the coaching staff needs to give him rest and keep him fresh down the stretch. So either they need to pray Johnson picks up his game, or Garth Snow needs to find a backup that will pick up the slack.
  2. Can the penalty kill improve?  They are 28th in the league on the PK with a 74.4% success rate.  Every time it looks like the PK is improving, they go through a bad stretch of allowing multiple goals against in a game.  Assistant coach Greg Cronin was brought in to help the penalty kill, but his antiquated scheme of leaving only one forward high gives up quality shots consistently from the opposition’s defense.  Hopefully he can use this break to come up with a new scheme.  The good news?  They lead the league with 8 short-handed goals scored.
  3. Who’s the odd forward out?  With Mikhail Grabovski on injured-reserve, the team has not yet had to answer this question.  But, who sits when he comes back, assuming no other forward gets hurt?  Earlier in the season Josh Bailey may have been a candidate, but his recent play on the top line has been stellar.  The fourth line of Cizikas-Martin-Clutterbuck are arguably the best fourth line in the game.  Youngsters Lee, Strome, and Nelson have proved themselves worthy of a spot.  Newcomer Nikolai Kulemin is a handful to handle along the boards and is one of the team’s best defensive forwards.  Michael Grabner appears to be rounding into shape, and his speed is still a game-breaker.  So, is Grabovski the odd man out?  We’ll see. 

3 Second-half Predictions

  1. John Tavares continues his offensive surge and is named as a Hart Trophy finalist for the second time in three years.  He’ll end up the season with 38 goals and 47 assists.
  2. The penalty kill will improve and finish closer to 20th in the league than 30th by the end of the season.  Michael Grabner will spark the turnaround and while the overall numbers may not be impressive, they will show a stark improvement.
  3. Johnny Boychuk re-signs with the club (maybe as early as the All-Star break) for six years, $36 million total.  By all indications he’s enjoyed his time with the Islanders, and if he’s looking to play for a winner, why would he leave?

Bottom Line?

People expecting this team to collapse in the second half are going to be sorely disappointed.  It’s been a while since the Isles have enjoyed this much success, and fans of all teams are probably looking at the Islanders with one eyebrow raised.  But this Islander squad is legit and barring a rash of injuries, is going to remain one of the elite teams in the league.  Its possession numbers (Corsi and Fenwick) are near the top of the league and they average the second most shots per game in the league while allowing the third fewest.  Add it up and they have the best shot for-shot against differential in the game, no small reason why this team is built to sustain success.

Beyond that the roster is littered with plenty of speed, size, and skill and have shown the ability to win in a variety of ways.  Just this past week they were able to outscore a couple of good offenses in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, but they also smothered another team in the Rangers by giving them little and physically imposing their will on them.  It's a trait that should make them a difficult out come playoff time.

I expect this team to win the Metropolitan Division and contend for the best record in the Eastern Conference, if not the entire league.  While I don’t love the coaching of Jack Capuano, this team has been able to mask many of his shortcomings and win a lot of games.  Unfortunately I can see Cappy’s deficiencies becoming an issue in the playoffs, but I’ll worry about that at that time.

As for the playoffs, maybe it’s a cop-out, but it’s going to come down to matchups and health.  Plus the East looks wide-open this year so I wouldn’t be shocked if the Islanders made a deep run and I wouldn’t be shocked if they had an early exit. But I can honestly say that as it stands now, there isn't a team in the East that should make the Isles afraid.  I don't know if other teams can say the same with the Islanders lurking.

The only thing I do know is that this team won’t be an easy one to knock out and the team is doing its best to make the last season at the Coliseum a memorable one.  Let's hope it's a ride that lasts well into June.

Follow me on Twitter @mikepac23 for my Islander thoughts and be sure to follow @TCLIsles for Islander news and analysis.