It was a tale of two postseasons for the New York Islanders. After the first round it looked like the Islanders were on their way to the Stanley Cup Finals, and just a round later some were shocked they even made it as far as they did. If you don’t keep winning, you don’t keep playing, and that Islanders couldn’t keep winning. Two NHL teams are still playing though, and the Islanders have a lot to learn from the Blues and Bruins.
I thought at the beginning of the season that many teams would look to last year’s Golden Knights as an example that anything is possible in the NHL, and teams that have seemingly no chance can go on a ridiculous run. It seemed to fit the Islanders narrative. John Tavares left the team in free agency, they’re expected to finish last, everyone has a chip on their shoulder. Indeed, the Islanders defied the odds and, to the surprise of many experts, made it to the second round of the playoffs.
That wasn’t supposed to be the story for the St. Louis Blues. They looked like a team primed to, at the very least, make noise in the playoffs. Lo and behold, the team was dead last in the NHL on January 2nd. They ended up going on said ridiculous run and reached the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1970. They were led by interim head coach Craig Berube, rookie goaltender Jordan Binnington, and a recharged offence featuring Vladimir Tarasenko and Ryan O’Reilly.
The Bruins have been here before, the second most times in league history as a matter of fact. In the past decade alone, they won the Cup in 2011, and returned in 2013 when they lost to Chicago. The current iteration of the Bruins contains almost the same core from the 2011 team. Bergeron and Krejci still pose a deadly threat down the middle, and Chara remains a stalwart on the back end. Even Brad Marchand was part of that cup winning squad. Goalie Tuuka Rask backed up Tim Thomas en route to the cup, and started when they lost to Chicago. The core of this team knows what it takes to win.
Analysts raved about the similarity of these teams before the series began on Monday. I’ve written about this before. These are both model teams to win the cup on paper. There’s a certain formula that has worked for recent cup winning teams, and these two are no exception.
Every winning team has, at least, a two headed monster down the middle. The Capitals had Backstrom, Kuznetsov, and Eller. The Penguins had Crosby, Malkin, and Bonino. The Kings had Kopitar, Carter, and Mike Richards. The Blackhawks had Toews, and Brad Richards. The Blues boast Schenn, O’Reilly, and Bozak, three great defensive centers who are also offensive threats. The Bruins have a similar triplet, rolling Bergeron, Krejci, and Coyle.
Center depth is crucial to winning the cup and the Islanders didn’t have enough, at least when they needed it. Mathew Barzal played well, but Brock Nelson had trouble scoring in the second round. Valterri Fipulla didn’t score the entire playoffs, and Casey Cizikas was silent after putting up a career statistical year. The center is the heartbeat of the line, and when it flatlines, it’s hard to win playoff games.
The next piece of the puzzle is a goal scorer. He’s the guy you count on when you’re team needs that crucial goal. Looking back again, the Penguins had Kessel, the Capitals had Ovechkin, the Blackhawks employed Patrick Kane, and the Kings found Marian Gaborik at the deadline. This year, the Blues have Vladimir Tarasenko, an Ovechkin-like sniper that can score from anywhere on the ice. The Bruins have David Pastrnak. The 5-year pro is coming off back to back 35 goal, 80 point seasons. He’s been a superstar on the Bruins infamous top line. He’s been active in the playoffs too, scoring 7 goals in 18 games. Tarasenko has 9 goals including one in game 1. Since 2014-2015, he hasn’t scored less than 33 goals in a season.
In round one, it looked like Jordan Eberle was going to be that guy for the Islanders. He scored in each of the four games against Pittsburgh and looked like he finally got over his regular season struggles. He continued to put up assists against Carolina, but when the team couldn’t find a way to score more than twice per game against the ‘Canes, a goal from him could’ve changed the series. With Eberle likely hitting the open market next year, it is especially important that the Islanders find an adequate replacement.
The next step is finding depth scoring. Antoine Vermette, acquired from Arizona at the 2015 trade deadline was instrumental in helping Chicago capture their third title in five years. Andrew Shaw and Teuvo Teravainen were two other pieces that helped Chicago prevail that spring. Last year, Lars Eller (18 points) and Devante Smith-Pelly (7 goals) scored in game 5 to help Washington capture their first title (parentheses indicate postseason stats).
After Nelson, Eberle, and Bailey, no Islander scored more than two goals in the playoffs. Among those who were goalless included Valterri Filpulla (17 regular season goals) and Casey Cizikas (20). Beauvillier (18) and Anders Lee (28) only scored one goal each. Two goals between all four the entire playoffs is simply not enough. Offence was a dire issue the entire season, and it showed in the second round. An elite forward can help take pressure off the depth players, and adding depth to a contending roster usually doesn’t hurt.
Obviously, the Islanders’ offence needs improvement if they want to contend again next year. Nevertheless, two key components of their roster allowed them to reach the point they did, goaltending and defence.
Tuuka Rask started the year in goal for the Boston Bruins. He proceeded to give up five goals on 19 shots in their opening game against the Capitals. They certainly learned a lesson from the defending champs, and reached the final a few months later. Rask started much less than he ever did in his career, with Jaroslav Halak starting, and winning, many games for Boston this season. The rest is paying off. Rask is riding an eight game winning streak and boasts a .940 SV% and 1.85 GAA so far in the playoffs.
Jordan Binnington came out of nowhere. At a point, he was playing for Boston’s farm team in Providence. When he was called up in January, he won games, and hasn’t stopped. He led the Blues to a playoff berth and continued his terrific play during the playoffs, outplaying Connor Hellebuyck, Ben Bishop, and Martin Jones, all goalies with significant playoff experience. He’s stopped 91.5% of shots he’s faced and carries with that a 2.4 GAA.
Robin Lehner was a rockstar for the Islanders. After revealing his mental health issues, he’s turned his career around. He won 25 games, put up a .930 SV%, allowed on average 2.13 goals per game, posted 6 shutouts, and was named a finalist for the Vezina trophy. He and Thomas Greiss won the Jennings trophy for least goals allowed. He continued his great play in the playoffs, posting a .936 SV% and 2.00 GAA. Thats especially impressive considering his team got swept in the second round.
Also crucial to the Isles’ success was their defensive unit. Coached terrifically by Barry Trotz, they helped the Islanders go from the worst defensive team to the best almost overnight. Devon Toews emerged as a terrific offensive defenseman and a quarterback on the powerplay. Nick Leddy remains a great second pairing defenseman who can play big minutes when needed to. Adam Pelech, Scott Mayfield, and Johnny Boychuk rounded out the main defensive core for the Islanders. They’re all locked up and will likely remain intact for at least the near future.
In the cases of Boston and St. Louis, defence was crucial to their run to the finals. Colton Parayko and Jay Bouwmeester are 2 and 3 in +/- respectively and have 11 and 6 points, also respectively. Not to be outdone is their captain, Alex Pietrangelo. A subject of trade rumors midseason, he’s number 5 on the Blues’ playoff point list (2-11-13). He averages over 25 minutes of ice time and has been a role model for his team all playoffs.
Boston is headed by the ageless Zdeno Chara. Even at 42 years old, he leads the team in +/- (+11), and has a goal and three assists. Torey Krug runs the top powerplay unit, Charlie McAvoy is rounding into a top defenseman in the NHL, Brandon Carlo is third on the time in average ice time, and Matt Grzelyck leads the defence in goals. It makes sense that the Bruins and Blues were both top five in the regular season goals against.
As the Cup Finals continue, the Islanders can be satisfied knowing that they have pieces in place to lead them on a deep playoff run, but should also learn from the finalists. The offence needs a major upgrade, and the powerplay needs to be more consistent. 2018-2019 was a huge step, especially considering we lost a superstar for nothing. The defense and goaltending were first class and the management is in the best shape it’s been in since the Cup days. There is clearly space for growth, and it’s necessary if the Islanders want to parade down Hempstead Turnpike, but they’re on the right path.