By Jeff Capellini
First off, let’s make one thing perfectly clear: The Islanders are off to a much better start this season than a year ago.
The Isles buried themselves to begin 2016-17, winning just six of their first 20 games (6-10-4). As a result, they were tasked with a season-long uphill climb and forced to play stressful hockey for seven months. Though they fought the good fight during the season’s second half, they ultimately fell one point shy of a playoff berth.
Fast forward to September. Fresh off having the interim label removed from his title, head coach Doug Weight declared that the Isles needed to emerge from training camp with a purpose.
Besides the obvious reasons, the Isles had to get out of the gate quickly because they play in probably the toughest division in the NHL. The Metropolitan is stacked with several teams that realistically could make a run to the Stanley Cup Final, including the two-time defending champion Penguins and the up-and-coming Blue Jackets. Throw in the developing-faster-than-expected Devils, the ever-dangerous Capitals and the rebounding Rangers, and it’s easy to see why a prolonged slump at any point could doom a so-called contender.
The Islanders got the message, as their 9-6-2 record indicates. And considering they will end up playing 12 of their first 20 games on the road, they should feel pretty good about where they stand as of Tuesday morning — four points out of first place in the division and in a wild-card spot.
But yet, their first 17 games were not as rewarding as they could have been. The Isles would easily be atop the Metro right now had they not produced a few awful efforts that, at this point, many of us thought they had outgrown. A season-opening 5-0 no-show at Columbus, a 6-4 defeat at Minnesota on Oct. 26 that was nowhere near as close as the score indicates and a 5-0 meltdown at Dallas on Friday prove that the Isles, though improved, are still a pretty difficult team to figure out.
Look, all teams are capable of stinkers. It’s an unavoidable byproduct of playing so many games in such a short period of time under an immense amount of pressure. But the Islanders’ enigmatic ways are even more confounding when you consider some of their victories this season. Like the 6-2 win at Cup runner-up Nashville on Oct. 28 and Saturday’s incredibly impressive 5-2 victory at Western Conference-leading St. Louis.
The main reason why the Islanders are a much more dangerous team this season is because their offense, when firing, is as good as any in the NHL. New York began the week tied for fifth in the league in goals per game with 3.47, and its power play, which started 2-for-33, has hit on nine of its last 24 attempts to climb up to 13th overall at a respectable 19.3 percent.
But for all the offense John Tavares and his teammates are producing, this game is still about stopping the puck as much as it is lighting the lamp. There’s really no other way to say it, so I’ll just tell it like it is: The Islanders’ goaltending has been dreadful.
Now, to simply say the fault rests solely on the shoulders of Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss wouldn’t be fair. The Islanders’ play in their own end, at times, has left a lot to be desired, especially in the games I spoke of above. There have been plenty of defensive breakdowns, and often the two veteran goalies have been left to fend for themselves.
But as a wise man I know once said, when it comes to the Islanders, the problem more often than not rests with their lack of identity in net. Sure, Halak and Greiss are names that have had success in this league, but neither has ever convinced fans and media members that they are worthy of being called a true No. 1 goalie. As a result, you really don’t know what you’re going to get on a nightly basis.
Halak, for example, has a career 2.42 goals-against average and .917 save percentage, but his play during his three-plus-year run with the Islanders has been spotty at best. He has a tendency to allow soft goals, and often the Isles have not recovered from him letting a seemingly stoppable shot fly over his glove hand or squeeze through his pads. What’s worse, it appeared that he started this season ready to be “the guy.” After returning from AHL exile late last season, the 32-year-old Slovakian went 6-1 with a 1.59 GAA and .949 save percentage.
Yet, here’s Halak 10 appearances into the new season with a 3.05 GAA and .898 save percentage. He can be infuriating to watch.
Greiss’ situation sets off far fewer alarm bells. Don’t get me wrong, the big German’s 3.28 GAA is ghastly and his .905 save percentage is not even mediocre, but he tends to be the more consistent of the two, especially when things are going right. He was outstanding at St. Louis on Saturday, stopping 35 shots, and has proven he can be a No. 1 if there is a fair balance between volume and rest.
Let’s not forget, right after Halak was placed on waivers and ultimately demoted to Bridgeport last season, Greiss was arguably the best goalie in the sport for a 30-day stretch, posting a 1.99 GAA and .936 save percentage with two shutouts in 13 appearances. His play tailed off after that, but mostly because the Isles didn’t have a viable backup due to the much-chronicled Jean-Francois Berube debacle. The Islanders basically rode Greiss into the ground.
Regardless of each netminder’s past flashes of brilliance, the Islanders’ 3.18 team GAA is 23rd in the NHL and their .901 save percentage is 21st. If those numbers don’t start improving — and I mean soon — the Isles will have a hard time staying in the thick of what will be a very tight postseason race all season, regardless of how many goals they score.
But again, just to reiterate, the deluge of goals allowed is not entirely on the goaltenders. More than one Isles defenseman needs to look in the mirror and start being more responsible in his own end. However, in this bottom-line world both Halak and Greiss are being paid handsomely to stop the puck, and right now they are not to the degree the Islanders need.
For once, the offense isn’t the problem.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @JCapWFAN