What’s Behind the Islanders Poor Home Record?

Kevin Schultz

The Islanders are 6-11-2 at home this year, not the lowest amount of home wins in the NHL but the most losses by a few. Last week, the Islanders blew home leads in each of their games against Ottawa, Montreal and Pittsburgh, which understandably upped the frustration of the fans.

So what’s the problem? Why are the Islanders so bad at home this year?

First off, it’s a bit of a magnification problem. A small sample size coupled with recent events blows the problem up considerably. Two games go the other way, and all of a sudden they’re 8-9-2, comparable to last year’s 17-18-6. Still not great, but certainly better looking.

Some of it is also blown out of proportion. The Islanders surrendered one-goal leads last week against Montreal and Pittsburgh, the #1 and #2 teams in the Eastern Conference. For a below-average team, like the Islanders are, losing a one-goal lead to two different steam rollers isn’t that crazy to imagine.

But more to the point, is that the Islanders are not a good hockey team. They are average, or below average, or slightly above, or whatever your preferred descriptor is but the fact is that they are not exceptional. They’re 14-15-3 playing in a weak Eastern Conference. Sometimes, it’s the simplest explanation that makes sense, even if it isn’t the sexiest.

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The Islanders have led or been tied heading into the third period in 22 of their 32 games this year. They’re 14-7-1 overall in those situations, 7-6-1 at home, 7-1-0 on the road. But remember, those stats are with them tied heading into the third. When they are leading after two, they’re 5-2-1 at home and 4-0-0 on the road. That’s not catastrophic. They’ve blown a few leads, clearly, but when you take out the tied-after-two situations, it’s not nearly so bleak. Clearly, those tied-after-two situations are where the problems lie. They’re not winning the close games, which is exactly what not so good teams do.

One of the biggest reasons they’re not winning those close games is goals against. They’re actually scoring at almost exactly the same pace this year at home as compared to last year; 2.58 goals per home game compared to 2.51 last year. Where there’s a major difference is how the Isles are giving up more goals at home, 3.42 per game this year compared to 2.95 last season. Nearly half a goal more. And that’s got an awful lot to do with goaltending (more on that in a minute). It’s also skewed by that 7-0 drubbing from the Flyers. I don’t like selective statistics, but taking that out brings their goals against at home down to 3.22 per game. But again, still worse than last year.

Another theory, proposed by CBS’ Jeff Cappelini last week, is that the Islanders are worse at home this year because of the move to Brooklyn hanging over them and the fans, but he’s not really saying it’s the fans, but really, the fans:

There is only one explanation for the Isles’ often horrifying play at home compared to their often inspired play on the road. They feel at ease on the road. They don’t lose their focus on the road. They don’t skate around on egg shells on the road, waiting for the other boot to drop. And if that’s because they don’t feel the love at the Coliseum, well, I’m sure they don’t feel a lot of love on the road either, yet somehow find a way to persevere. The nightly lineup and coaching strategies are largely the same every game, but the players’ execution and focus at the Coliseum compared to on the road is like night and day.

Saying that the team “doesn’t feel the love” at the Coliseum may very well be accurate. That said, if the team “doesn’t feel the love” at the Coliseum this year, I don’t know that what’s been going on at the NVMC for the last half-dozen years or so could be considered different or remotely close to ‘love.’ And saying they “somehow find a way to persevere” doesn’t back up the reasoning with any substance whatsoever. “Somehow” the Islanders are 7-1-0 on the road when leading or tied after two. Because they score more goals on the road? Because they get better goaltending? Something else? Welp, somehow!

(Spoiler: They get more goals, 3.23 goals for and better defense/goaltending, 3.07 goals against on the road. But that goals against number is close to the home number, if we discount the Flyers blowout game.)

But I can agree that this is a young team, and to see them not be resilient or fold easily is honestly something that could be expected of any young team or any average/below average team. As it just so happens, that’s happening at home this year.

Capellini continues:

I had it out with folks on Twitter in the aftermath of the Isles’ dreadful 5-2 loss to visiting Montreal on Thursday. Their continuous defense or reasoning for the Isles’ terrible play at home was based on talent and coaching. I just don’t buy all of that, mostly because of the Isles’ stellar road record, illustrated by the proven fact that they don’t fall apart late in games. Or if they have, they’ve still more often than not found a way to win. Case in point, last Saturday night in Florida when they blew a three-goal lead in the third but yet took the lead back late and held on for the victory.

That paragraph literally disproved itself.

To paraphrase; ‘It’s a proven fact that the Islanders don’t fall apart late in road games because of this road game that they fell apart late in, but managed to get a late goal to win.’

The Islanders very clearly fell apart late in the third in Sunrise, I don’t know how losing a three-goal lead in a matter of minutes can be excused away and ignored because it turned out alright. In this instance, it wasn’t the Habs or Penguins waiting to pounce, it was the NHL’s worst team. Against the Panthers they completed the timeless clichés of ‘persevering’ and ‘finding a way to win’. Somehow. Against Scott Clemmensen and his horrendous .862 save percentage and on a team that has a -38 goal differential. I don’t know how they managed against such a tough opponent.

The Islanders are a team that finished 14th last year, switched PA Parenteau for Brad Boyes, added Lubomir Visnovsky, and got a bunch of defenders off waivers to replace a bunch of defenders who couldn’t make NHL teams out of camp this year. For the most part this is a very similar team, albeit a bit better,  than the one that finished 14th last year.

Speaking of last year, there’s also a surprising difference between last year and this year between the pipes. The intention isn’t to pick on one specific player, but note something that stands out.

Evgeni Nabokov has a .896 save percentage (16 games) at home this year compared to .910 on the road (11 games). Last year, those numbers were .915 at home (17 games) and .913 on the road (25 games). In almost the exact same sample size, Nabokov has a .019 difference in save percentage this year at home as compared to last year. That means he’s surrendered an extra 8.2 goals at home this year than he would have if he was playing at the same level he was last year (.019 x 433 shots faced). It would be nice to have eight goals back and a starting goalie with an above .900 save percentage at home. Also: as a 37-year old vet who could easily be retired by the time the Islanders get to Brooklyn, do you think he is all of a sudden shaking in his boots about what the home fans think or playing poorly because of his environment? Somehow, I imagine Nabokov is long past that point of his career.

The three other homes games that were not tended to by Nabokov were two parts Kevin Poulin and one part Rick DiPietro, all losses. DiPietro, who has played at the Coliseum for more than 10 years and certainly should be used to, er, an unfriendly home environment, started one game there this year. In it, he gave up five goals on 30 shots for a lovely .833 home save percentage. Poulin has a .857 home save percentage in his two starts. Maybe if Nabokov, who is getting a ton of work, started those games the Islanders could have won. Who knows.

Not that the goalies deserve all the blame for the home woes but, uh, yeah, a lot of it.

Is the Islanders’ lack of support at the Coliseum so poor that the team feels uninspired? Well, they do have the lowest average home attendance in the NHL at just over 12,700 per game, but it’s not like the place is empty. The fans still bring the noise when they feel they have a reason.

But what is annoying yet understandable considering the Islanders’ lack of recent playoff seasons and the fact that they’ll soon be heading to Brooklyn is the legions of opposing fans that take over the Coliseum.

The idea that the types of fans in the building and/or their lack of enthusiasm are the cause of the Islanders woes is asinine. After all Isles fans have been through — from Spano, to playoff less seasons, the 1-17-3 streak a few Novembers ago and more — they should in no way be blamed for lack of enthusiasm, something that existed long before Barclays came along. And it’s not like the move is exactly killing attendance, either; the Islanders had 14,000+ show up Sunday night with only a couple of Panthers fans in sight.

As for the players, these are professionals. Many of them have done it at NVMC for years under different, but still very shaky, arena worries (trying to condemn the arena, the Lighthouse Project failure, public vote failure). Did the 2009-10 Islanders go 23-14-4 at home because the Lighthouse Project got thrown away and the entire future of the franchise was up in the air? No, that uncertainly must have inspired them!

We saw earlier this season that yes, in fact, they do care greatly about the results of the games. Is playing at the Coliseum, which is pretty blatantly a terrible facility, no fun for them? Sure it’s possible, although they’ll never admit it. They might play better at a rink with good ice, and modern amenities, absolutely. But is the team bad because the fans show a lack of support or because there are a lot of opposition fans or because there are arena issues?

Well, I guess you might as well pin the last 20 seasons devoid of playoff series wins on the fans and arena issues too.

It’s been no secret that for a long time, the Coliseum has been inundated with Rangers fans and those of other locals.

But did opposing fans only now just start showing up in droves or, before Brooklyn, did the Quebec Nordiques have a damned pep rally at the Coliseum during the 2010-11 season when the Islanders went 17-18-6 at home? I don’t think I was dreaming when I witnessed that.

So please, everyone, stop making this small sample of a home record about the arena situation. The Islanders have had an arena situation of some kind for 20+ years. Now it’s Brooklyn and asbestos, five years ago it was the Lighthouse Project, fifteen years back it was Milstein and Gluckstern trying to get the place condemned. Islanders fans have had a lot of reasons to be apathetic, upset, or both.

Also, please stop making this about opposing fans invading the arena, it’s been that way throughout this half-decade long rebuild. It might be bit worse now, but certainly not significantly worse or bad in a way that would have pro athletes shaking in their boots. (Is Matt Martin really more worried about the ‘Let’s Go Islanders’ chant getting drowned out than that goon attempting to punch him in the face?)

This is about the team on the ice and the coaching staff behind the bench and whether they are bad, average, or good. Because in the end that, and the teams they play against, are really what determines who wins and loses. Not some vague sadness the team gets from feeling unappreciated at home. Not from an arena situation hanging over their head. Or, if those things are bothering them, it’s been dragging down the franchise for years.

It’s not that different all of a sudden.

The Islanders play 11 of their final 16 games on the road including tonight’s game in Washington. That’s good news, if you believe their road record of 8-4-1 will continue. I have no qualms if you want to subscribe to that, and I hope it does continue because a playoff team is a lot more fun to cover. If the success doesn’t continue and the team misses the playoffs, I guess we’ll have to settle for the explanation that the road fans were too cordial, or the home fans too apathetic, or maybe it was voodoo, and no, it wasn’t at all that the Islanders weren’t a good enough team.