This Should Be the Islanders’ Rock Bottom

TAMPA, FL - NOVEMBER 15: New York Islanders defenseman Scott Mayfield (24) looks to make a pass during the NHL Hockey match between the Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Islanders on November 15th, 2021 at Amalie Arena in Tampa, FL. (Photo by Andrew Bershaw/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

In a 6-1 loss to the Florida Panthers last night, the Islanders looked tired and mentally absent. A looming theme over their 13-game road trip, the team was at its worst over the past two nights. Zdeno Chara, Brock Nelson, and Kyle Palmieri have gotten into fights to keep the team energized, but it hasn’t shaken the haze that hangs over the Isles. As the opening of the Islanders’ new home at UBS Arena grows near, they need to treat these past few weeks like they’ve hit rock bottom.

What Does That Mean?

On Oct. 6, I posted an article entitled: “The Islanders are the Best New York Team Right Now.” In that piece, I spoke about how the team’s resilience helps them beat skilled opponents. The Islanders’ strategy has been the same since Barry Trotz took over before the 2018-19 season. The Isles would weather an opponent’s forecheck, wait for a mistake to be made, then capitalize on that mistake. With tough and speedy defense backed by rock-solid goaltending, the Islanders made impressive underdog runs to two straight Conference Finals.

The team has changed this year in a multitude of ways. I believe that former players Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk held a leadership role on defense. With both d-men off the team, nobody has stepped up to be the de-facto leader. Also, current defensemen on the team have seen an uptick in time on ice, another change that needs time to work.

Ultimately, the Islanders need to look at their road trip as rock bottom. Numerous ESPN hockey analysts have said that the Islanders 5-6-2 record is something to be happy about, which is fine unless you’re watching the games. During last night’s ESPN+ broadcast John Buccigross, Bob Wischusen, and AJ Mleczko all commented how well the Islanders played when the game was 5-0 in favor of Florida. That commentary feels useless because they played flat all night up until that point. With the new arena set to open this Saturday and the next five games played at home, the Isles need to turn their back on the four straight losses.

UBS Arena Gives Them Upside

Along with lineup changes this offseason, the Islanders also had a change in their schedule. Those 13 games spent on the road can be taxing to a player, both mentally and physically. The return to Long Island is more meaningful than playing games in front of a home crowd. Players can sleep in their own beds, see their families, and begin to normalize their new permanent home.

The Islanders are a momentum-based team. In recent years, the Isles fandom has risen to one of the most dedicated in the NHL. A big positive is that the new arena is easy to travel to. If we remember John Tavares’ return to Long Island as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs, the fans were relentless. The constant jeers aimed at Tavares affected the eventual 6-1 Islander victory. As they settle into UBS Arena, coach Barry Trotz hopes they can recoup and get back to playing competitive hockey.

*Some chants in this video contain strong language. View discretion is advised.*

 “It’s turned into a little bit of a long nightmare. We’re looking forward to getting back,” Trotz said. “We’re opening a new arena. Hopefully, there will be some new energy and new focus. To be honest, it hasn’t been easy. From our standpoint, we have to get better.”

Ryan Pulock injury

Pulock was absent from the game against the Panthers on Tuesday night due to a shot he blocked in Monday’s game against the Tampa Bay lightning. Arthur Staple from the Athletic reported that the team expects Pulock to miss 4-6 weeks with a lower-body injury. His injury couldn’t have come at a worse time. With the Islanders set for a homestand, missing Pulock will cost the defense mightily.

The loss of Pulock is brutal for an Islanders team that is already in last place in the Metropolitan division. He is the player I expect to step up as the leader of a defense. The former 1st-round pick in the 2013 NHL draft signed an eight-year $49.2 million contract this past offseason.

The Islanders have defensive options when looking at their American Hockey League roster. Thomas Hickey, Grant Hutton, and Simon Bolduc are suitable replacements for missing Pulock.

The Verdict

The Islanders are now finished with an extensive road trip that had some ups, but mostly downs. As they enter their new arena on Saturday, the road games are no longer an excuse for poor play. Coach Barry Trotz had tried everything he could for lineup combinations, but nothing has worked consistently. With a solid lineup throughout, more complacency may lead the Islanders to transactions outside of the organization. The hope is that this team can band together and learn from the rough patch they just fought through.

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