On Monday, the Islanders closed out the first half of their season with a 7-4 victory over the Flyers. This win brought them to a record of 31-14-1, good for first in the eastern conference at the end of the day on Monday as well as first place in their division. What are some of the surprises of the first half that have brought the Islanders to this point?
MVP in Net
Coming out of last season, Garth Snow knew he had to upgrade in net for his team to have a chance night in and night out. Knowing that, he wasted little time filling that void as in early May he acquired Jaroslav Halak from the Washington Capitals in exchange for a 4th round draft pick and just a few short weeks later the Islanders had their goalie. While he didn't have a great start, Halak has settled in to arguably be the teams MVP to this point. He has brought them stability in net that the Islanders have been searching for, for nearly a decade. To this point in the season, Halak has a 2.41 GAA and a .910 save percentage. That was good enough to get him elected to his first all-star game this weekend in Columbus.
Another huge element of the Islanders success has been the emergence of their young forwards. By now you know them as Ryan Strome, Brock Nelson and Anders Lee. All three, draft picks of the Islanders during their rebuild have paid dividends for the team this season. Nelson got off to the hot start leading the team in goals for a while. He has now cooled off a bit but is still having an impressive second season. Meanwhile, Ryan Strome didn't get off to the same hot start that Nelson did, but he has sure made up for it the last few weeks. In that time, fans have gotten to see Strome take the next step in his development as a player and it has been a treat to watch. Lastly, Lee who was the one that was left off the opening night roster has really earned his spot since getting called up at the end of October. Two key elements that really provide value for Lee are his net front presence and his clutch goal scoring. Lee has made the front of the net his office, much in the way of Mark Parrish and Matt Moulson and it has really proved to be beneficial for him. Additionally, while his stats might not jump off the page, they have come at key times. Lee has 13 goals this season which is near the top of the league in rookie scoring. Of those 13 goals though, 5 of them are game winners. When the game is on the line, Lee is proving that he is someone who you want out there.
Head Coaching Improvements?
This may come as a surprise to some as a lot of fans still aren't huge advocates of Islanders coach Jack Capuano. While I admit he certainly has numerous flaws, it can't be denied what he has done with this team this season. While he still makes you bang your hear on the wall sometimes, if it is the recent treatment of Jaroslav Halak heading into the all-star break, or playing Brian Strait early in the season instead of playing Matt Donovan, to say he hasn't also made improvements would be incorrect. You have seen multiple times this year that he has corrected things that in the past he maybe wouldn't have been as quick to fix. Additionally, he isn't coddling players as much as he once did. In the past, fans criticized Capuano for being to easy on the players and not holding them accountable. This season, in some respects it has been different as Capuano has shown a willingness to give mention about certain players lack of performance in the media which is something he never would've previously done. He has also showed emotion a lot more in general in the media which is a refreshing change for the coach. While he still might not be the perfect coach for the Islanders, the fact that he has made improvements along with the team is encouraging.
Penalty Kill Struggles
For all the positives of the Islanders first half, I wouldn't be doing my job if I ignored the enormous struggles of the penalty kill. The Islanders penalty kill struggled last season and following the season they saw coach Brent Thompson who was in charge of the penalty kill return to coach Bridgeport. With the opening, the Islanders brought in Greg Cronin from Toronto to take the spot. From the moment it was announced it seemed like a typical Islanders hire to me because he had history with the team and he had history in Maine and for some reason the Islanders like to bring in a lot of people from there. Anyway, Cronin was in charge of the Maple Leafs penalty kill the last few seasons and while it finished better than the Islanders, there wasn't a huge difference. In fact, last season, the Maple Leafs penalty kill finished just one spot ahead of the Islanders. While it is fair to be surprised at the struggles, should it be that big of a surprise considering Cronins recent history of coaching the penalty kill elsewhere? You might be right to expect the players to play better, but in some respect I feel as though the Islanders signed up for these struggles when they brought in Cronin back in June.