By Chris Hennessy
The New York Islanders are in first place in the Metropolitan Division. By the time you read this, they may not be, but they led the division at least once. The importance of that to the Islanders players and fans is hard to put into words, but I will give it my best shot.
Going into the season, exactly zero people (including yours truly) thought the Islanders would make the playoffs. They lost their best player and captain to free agency, and despite hiring a hall-of-fame coach and general manager, they did not make any big-time free agency acquisitions to replace the production of John Tavares. Yet, here we are in January — yes, I know only January — and the Islanders are the hottest team in the league, with a 14-3 record in the 17 games between Dec. 15 and Jan. 19. While that record is absolutely not sustainable over an extended period of time, the hot streak has launched the Islanders into playoff relevancy for the first time in three years. The four-line balance, hot goaltending and, most importantly, hall of fame-level coaching have contributed to this success.
The most electrifying and energetic line the team has is their fourth line of Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck. The group was reunited when new General Manager Lou Lamoriello made a trade with the Maple Leafs to get Martin back on Long Island. Over the last few weeks, the line has rekindled the fire they had in their 2013-2015 seasons when they played together, and the team is reaping the benefits. When I was on the Islanders beat last week while they played the Lightning, Cizikas said, “The confidence the three of us are playing with is making it a lot easier out there not just for myself but for us as a group.” That confidence is prevalent throughout the entire locker room, especially with goaltenders Robin Lehner and Thomas Griess.
The goaltending in the last 17 games has been jaw-dropping, out-of-this-world ridiculous and the numbers do not even look real. Lehner is 9-1 in his last ten starts and currently leads the league in Goals Against Average (GAA). They also lead the league in team GAA with two goaltenders who are not considered elite in the league. Lehner would most likely be in the conversation for the Veznia trophy for the best goaltender, but splitting the games with Griess led to a lack of games played compared to the other contenders. My first piece for The Ram was all about Lehner, Griess and goaltending coach Mitch Korn.
The final and most important piece of the Islanders success is the new coach Barry Trotz. Trotz won his first career Stanley Cup last year with the Washington Capitals and was not retained after the season. Two weeks after the Finals, Trotz signed a contract with the Islanders to become the head coach. This season, he passed legendary Islanders coach Al Arbour on the all-time wins list and has instilled an unparalleled level of confidence upon the team. He is the favorite for the Jack Adams Award for best coach and should win the second one of his career come the end of the season.
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