NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — When the Islanders signed goaltender Jaroslav Halak to a four-year contract in the summer of 2014, they did so in the hope of solidifying a position that had plagued the team’s growth for years.
The move worked.
Halak performed admirably last season with the Islanders, setting a franchise single-season record with 38 wins, in addition to a 2.43 goals-against average and .914 save percentage. The 30-year-old Slovakian then upped his game during the seven-game loss to the Washington Capitals in the opening round of the playoffs, posting a .926 save percentage.
The Islanders were done-in in that series by their offense, which managed just 15 goals, including eight over the final five games.
A lot was put on Halak’s shoulders last season, mostly because the Isles did not have a viable backup or someone to push him during the regular season.
That hasn’t been the case this season.
Veteran Thomas Greiss signed a two-year deal last July, presumably to spell Halak 25 or so games each season. But the 30-year-old German has arguably been the Islanders’ MVP through 55 games this season, posting a 16-6-2 record with a stellar 2.16 GAA and .931 save percentage.
Greiss has been especially outstanding of late, winning his last five starts, including a 28-save effort in the Isles’ 4-1 win over visiting Detroit on Monday, a game New York desperately needed as it jockeys for position in the air-tight Eastern Conference playoff race.
“I think (Greiss) has been a pleasant surprise for us, and me personally,” Islanders forward Josh Bailey said. “I don’t think we’ve seen him a whole lot. You really didn’t know what to expect. I’m sure guys that have played with him in the past aren’t surprised. The more we get to know of him and see him, he’s been great for us. He’s a great guy.”
Conversely, Halak has won just one of his last five starts, posting an unsightly .872 save percentage in the process. To be fair, the Islanders have at times this season not played all that well in front of him. Case in point, Saturday night at Carolina. The Isles put forth arguably their worst defensive effort of the season in a 6-3 defeat, as they were a mess in their own end as evidenced by blown assignments and plenty of standing around and watching the puck.
“You play 82 games, it’s going to happen. Let’s not kid ourselves,” Islanders head coach Jack Capuano said. “I just felt bad because (Halak) has been practicing hard. We left our goalie out to dry.”
The loss dropped Halak to 13-12-4 on the season, and his season averages — 2.42 GAA and .914 save percentage — are now less than his career averages of 2.39 and .917, respectively.
That begs the question of whether the Isles have simply seen the best of Halak, who has played for four teams during his 11-year career, or if he’s simply in a rut.
One thing is certain, the Islanders will face a compressed schedule over the final 27 games as they will often play every other night. Capuano has said he plans on using three goalies, including oft-scratched youngster J.F. Berube.
“When you have a hot goalie and he’s playing well, you want to play him,” Capuano said. “But again, we always take into account, on the back-to-back, what stats they might have had against those teams and in years past.”
But another thing to keep in mind is the fact that Greiss’ next appearance, his 26th, will set a career high for a season. So, as much as Halak’s play of late has been worrisome, the Isles simply have no way of knowing what Greiss is capable of over a longer haul.
And they have very little margin for error in a playoff race that will undoubtedly go down to the regular season’s final days.
“I just think, honestly, with the amount of games we have this month and next month, all three goalies are going to get a good opportunity to play a lot of hockey,” Capuano said. “Because the one thing we want to make sure is that we’re fresh. Playing every other day, it’s a lot of hockey. We want to utilize it and make sure we do the right things with our players.”