THE MORNING SKATE — Isles Need to Be Better at Even Strength

Kevin Schultz

The story of the Islanders first seven games was clearly their special teams, as they were ranked 1st in the league in both penalty killing and power play going into Sunday’s game against New Jersey. After Sunday’s 0-for-7 the power play dropped to 5th in the league at 29% and Steve Bernier’s first goal, only the second goal the Islanders penalty kill has allowed this year, dropped them to third at a hair under a 93% success rate. These stats are still great numbers and the team deserves credit for them, but the game against the Devils also showed how much this team is living and dying by the success and failure of their special teams. They’re going to need to play better 5-on-5 hockey, as the team will eventually have to come back to earth and start producing “normal” man advantage numbers.

At 29%, the Islanders are still well ahead of what even the best teams have historically done on the power play. Last year’s best mark was 21.6% from Nashville and no team has posted better than 25.5% in the last five years (Detroit did that twice in 2007-08 and 2008-09). The Islanders could certainly keep up a torrid pace and be at the top of the league this year — they were 8th last season so it’s not out of the question — but I seriously doubt their ability to stay near the 30% mark.

What’s really surprising about this early going is how good the penalty kill has been, as the Isles were 23rd (80.5%) in the league last season. The top unit of Michael Grabner, Frans Nielsen, Andrew MacDonald and Travis Hamonic has been quite good, with help from Evgeni Nabokov in goal (Nabokov has an excellent .943 save percent when playing 4-on-5). They’re playing well and only slightly above what’s possible, at 92.9% when the league high is usually in the upper 80s. It’ll be important for these players to continue to play well on the penalty kill.

But the most concerning thing, right now, is that the Islanders have not played as well 5-on-5 as they have on special teams. They’re 22nd in the league in 5-on-5 goals, scoring .77 goals for every one their opponents score. Unlike the penalty kill and power play units, that 5-on-5 number is right in line with where the Isles were last year; dead last in the league at .74. In 2010-11, when the offense was scoring well, they were still 27th at .81.

Whether it’s through goaltending, backchecking, or good old fashioned defense, the Islanders are going to need to play better than they have at even strength. They’ve been outscored 22-17 at 5-on-5 thus far despite a +1 goal differential overall. Their special teams will come back to earth statistically, even if only a little bit. Their even strength play will have to get better — continuing the poor pace of the last few seasons isn’t going to help the cause.

So, I know it can be tough with a language barrier and all, but can we all agree once and for all that our media friends in Europe know what they’re writing about?

If you live in Brooklyn and want to watch the Isles with some fellow fans, there’s a Facebook group for that. They’ll be watching Thursday night’s game against the Rangers at O’Keefe’s:

Islanders Fans in Brooklyn will be having our first gamewatch of this season on Thursday, February 7th for the game against the Rangers! Join us to watch the Isles keep the winning going in the first game of the series. We will be meeting up at O’Keefe’s in downtown Brooklyn at 62 Court Street. Look for us upstairs, where they are going to set aside some space for us.

If there are any other groups out there anywhere (you don’t have to be in Brooklyn), feel free to shoot us an email and we’ll post it up here.