A year ago, the Islanders were in a similar position as they are in now. They were winning games and climbing up the standings. However, last year much of the team’s success stemmed solely from strong offence. Alternatively, as we near the quarter mark of this season, that offence remains, and is now supported by a strong goaltending tandem of Thomas Greiss and Robin Lehner.
Thomas Greiss is coming off a terrible ’17-’18 campaign. His stats show that they were a result of more than just a bad defense in front of him. Greiss started 25 games last year, seven of which (28%) were statistically “bad starts,” ones in which Greiss’ save percentage was under 85%. This year, he only has one (opening night vs. NSH) in what was otherwise a solid performance.
His overall save percentage has skyrocketed. He went from a .892 last year to an impressive .930 this year, tied for fifth best in the NHL. His goals against average has also plummeted. He allowed nearly four goals per game (3.82) last year compared to 2.3 this year, eighth in the NHL.
Another telling statistic is his GSAA, or goals saved above average. This stat is defined as the amount of goals the goalie prevented given the amount of shots saved compared to the league average. The Islanders give up some of the most shots in the league at 33.3 per game on average. The fact that Greiss’ SV% and GAA are outstanding thus far, it makes sense that he prevented 6.54 goals during his time in net. This means that one or two goal games could have been lost had it not been for Griess. He’s given the team multiple important wins this year.
Griess has a worthy partner-in-crime in Robin Lehner. The Swedish netminder went public with his struggle with mental health and has since proven that he is able to overcome the challenges his mind presents him. Lehner is 4-4-1 with a 2.59 GAA and a .921 SV%. Despite having trouble finding the win column lately, his underlying stats suggest he is better than his current slump.
Lehner has 5 quality starts and 4 wins. This means that despite losing games, he is still playing well. His quality start percentage is around or above league average at .556. He also has no statistically bad starts so far. Despite his seemingly less than impressive W/L ratio, his peripherals have improved drastically from last season in Buffalo where he posted a lowly .908 SV% and a 3.01 GAA.
Lehner has impressed Isles fans this year. His first game in New York was a 35-save shutout against a dangerous San Jose Sharks team and in his subsequent appearances, has rarely given up “bad” goals.
The success of the goaltenders is surely of note, but it is not to be outdone by the team’s overall defensive structural prowess, led by head coach Barry Trotz. Despite the team giving up many shots, not many of them are threatening. Shots against don’t tell the entire story of a team. Of the top six teams in shots against per game, only the SJ Sharks and the Calgary Flames occupy a playoff position. The top two teams (CAR and VGK) both sit towards the bottom of their respective divisions.
Many defensemen on the team have taken steps forward with their development and are playing drastically better than last year, mainly in terms of gap control and clearing the front of the net. The season is still early, and there are plenty of things to work on, but the Islanders’ defence has been strong out of the gates.
A team’s backbone is always their goaltender, and the Islanders have two who they are confident can play and win on a nightly basis. Head coach Barry Trotz articulated that confidence after the Isles’ 3-2 SO win against Pittsburgh.
“Those are pretty good people coming at him and he didn’t flinch. Then they throw a couple big names at him in the shootout and he was really good.”
Greiss had fended off Crosby, Kessel, and Letang with the game on the line and managed to lift his team to a win. Trotz trusts his goaltender and his goaltender trusts himself as well.
It’s a testament to the team’s will to win in a year where not much winning was expected, as well as the goalies’ wills to become better and prove that they are better than they have been in previous years. Thomas Greiss summarized Barry Trotz’s effect on the team with a simple sentiment: the team is having fun.
“We’re very structured this year, playing well as a team and everyone is chipping in. It’s always nice when you don’t give up five or six goals a night. It’s going well and everyone is happy. We’re enjoying hockey right now.”
Stats courtesy of hockey-reference.com and quotes courtesy of NHL.com.