Islanders return from All-Star break, for better or worse

As the New York Islanders get back to work after the All-Star break, hosting the Minnesota Wild at Barclays Center tonight, I must admit I’m worried about them. With a difficult schedule ahead — 18 of their next 28 games are on the road — the possibility of another second-half swoon is quite realistic. The Islanders limped to the finish line last spring, and it cost them home-ice advantage in the first round of the postseason against Washington. The disappointment of that Game 7 loss still stings Islander fans, who have been waiting since 1993 to see their team win a playoff series.

Through 47 games, the Islanders have 56 points and stand third in the Metropolitan Division (25-16-6). Through 47 games last season, they had 65 points and led the division (32-14-1). One of the most glaring differences has been their overtime record — 5-6 so far this season, but 11-1 at this point last season. The Isles have not found the new 3-on-3 format to their liking, losing three of the five games settled in that fashion. All-Star captain John Tavares, who scored four OT winners last season, has none this season.

So perhaps the Islanders’ lofty standing in the first half of 2014-15 was inflated a bit by their prowess in 4-on-4 overtimes and shootouts. That prowess was no help at all to them in the playoffs, and it showed.

That said, there is much to like about the 2015-16 Islanders:

Penalty killing — The Isles are No. 2 in the league when short-handed, killing off 87.2 percent, including a string of 42 in a row. This is a vast improvement from the start of last season, when they were struggling to implement new assistant coach Greg Cronin’s penalty kill. Now Cronin is in his second year, and his methods have become second nature to the penalty killers. There’s been another key, too. …

Goaltending — The save percentages while on the PK for Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss rank the Islanders’ goalies among the NHL’s best. Halak seemed to tire toward the end of last season, when neither Chad Johnson nor Michal Neuvirth proved a reliable backup. This season, both goalies have been outstanding, so Halak has a better chance of entering the postseason fully energized. Then again, the Isles might also make a playoff run with the No. 2 guy between the pipes, simply because Greiss has been of equal quality.

Other positives — Brock Nelson has emerged as a goal scorer with a team-high 19, just one less than his career high. Frans Nielsen is one of the NHL’s top two-way forwards, and Cal Clutterbuck has scored 10 goals as a fourth-line center/penalty killer. The Isles also have been better finishers, pulling games out in the third period instead of blowing late leads and relying on their OT dramatics to bail them out.

So, what’s not to like about the 2015-16 Islanders? Plenty:

Lamp lighters lacking — Anders Lee, a 25-goal scorer last season, has just six goals this season. Ryan Strome, thought to be another of the Islanders’ rising stars, was demoted to the AHL for a time because he was so ineffective. But the biggest disappointment has been Tavares. After finishing second in the league with 86 points last year, when he was edged out for the Art Ross Trophy on the season’s final day, Tavares has been nowhere near that point-a-game pace. He has managed just 34 points in 44 games, and his minus-5 rating indicates he has been on the ice for too many even-strength goals.

Putt-putt power play — The Islanders didn’t score a single power-play goal in last spring’s seven-game playoff loss, and their inability to score with the man-advantage has carried over to this season. They rank in the bottom half of the league — 19th — with a 17.5 percent power-play success rate.

Division doldrums — The Islanders are just 5-11-2 against their rivals in the Metropolitan Division, and stand just one point ahead of fourth-place Pittsburgh as the schedule resumes. They could fall out of a playoff position very easily, and will need a strong finish to make the tournament for a second straight year.

Posted February 2, 2016

Sources: Associated Press; ESPN;;; Newsday;