ELMONT, N.Y. — The biggest task in the middle of this wacky New York Islanders season for Patrick Roy is cutting down on shots against, chances against and turnovers. He was quick to point out the turnovers that led to 17 shots by the Dallas Stars on Sunday, despite the overtime win in his coaching debut.
The Islanders were far, far better on Tuesday, even with just one extra on-ice session Tuesday morning and some video work Monday. There were still a couple of turnovers that led to goals for the Vegas Golden Knights, including the eventual winner in the second, but this was the sort of game the Islanders haven’t played at all this season: One they deserved to win despite the final result.
A team on the wrong side of the playoff cut line after January 1 can’t be satisfied with moral victories. But this situation is different: Roy is trying to build the Islanders’ team defense back up from hideous to acceptable and maybe beyond. In Roy’s second game, the Islanders cut down to 27 shots against, just 41 shot attempts and, according to Roy postgame, 13 Golden Knights scoring chances.
That it added up to a 3-2 loss hurts, but not as much as some of the recent defeats in which the Islanders were overwhelmed by a variety of opponents and simply crumpled under the weight.
“The fundamentals kind of remain the same,” Adam Pelech said after the loss, “but I think what I like and what the guys like about it is we have a chance to be more aggressive. Trying to end plays quicker. The whole idea is you want to end plays quickly because if you give them 20-30 seconds to roll around your zone, you end up being in there for a minute or more. So there’s an adjustment but I really do think guys have picked it up quickly.”
That the turnovers were fewer is a small consolation in the standings because a couple of the turnovers were costly. Pelech tried to quickly fling a puck under pressure that went right to Alex Pietrangelo, whose shot was tipped past Ilya Sorokin. Noah Dobson tried a stretch play with all three Islanders forwards up the ice that was picked off and Nic Roy deposited a rebound for a 3-1 Golden Knights lead.
But the Islanders were the ones with the puck and the zone time most of Tuesday, to the tune of 42 shots, a season high. Adin Hill was sharp in the Vegas net in his first full game in two months but he left half a dozen loose pucks in the blue paint that could have turned this one in a different direction.
“We were moving our feet much more than I saw in the previous game,” Roy said. “Maybe we should have lost the Dallas game and we should have won. … Overall I’m happy about the progression that I’ve seen. And I’m sure you guys see the same thing.”
You might have figured that Roy would have called for a practice on Monday, barely more than 24 hours after he arrived on the Island to take over his new gig. But instead, there was a meeting with video and some give and take between coach and players — something that Roy found difficult to do in his first NHL go-round with the Colorado Avalanche when players felt it was his way or the highway.
“He wants us to talk in the meetings,” Jean-Gabriel Pageau said. “It’s very open. We have questions and we’re all trying to be on the same page. You can see from on the ice already there’s a lot of stoppages and going over details. He wants us to create those good habits. It’s all constructive and he doesn’t want to let anything slide this early.”
From the start of Tuesday’s game, the Islanders were more disciplined and less careless in their own end than they’ve been for much of this season. They had a defenseman stay home in front of the net most shifts, the breakouts were simpler, and there were more dump-ins and retrievals up the ice. It’s not rocket science but it is a change.
Lane Lambert didn’t coach this team to ignore structure and details without the puck. But this season, reminiscent of the disastrous 2017-18 campaign, seemed to snowball away from Lambert and his coaching staff. Players who know how to defend simply drifted farther away from what they were taught until the team became unrecognizable to anyone who saw what Barry Trotz (with Lambert as his associate) did from 2018-21.
“I need to go on record with this: Lane is a really good coach,” Mathew Barzal said. “He’s extremely detailed, one of the most details guys I know and another team is going to be fortunate to have him. I truly mean that.
“With Patrick, what he’s telling us is a lot of plays we can make on instinct. It’s using your legs, more skating, more aggressiveness. You’re not out there thinking, you’re just going and that’s what we’re trying to get in there in a short period of time. It’s more aggression. Playing together.”
The 33 even-strength attempts against on Tuesday was a season low. There were lots more pleased faces and positivity in the locker room than at almost any time in the last month. “They should feel positive,” Roy said. Another positive: Semyon Varlamov, out since Jan. 2, is slated to start in Montreal on Thursday, giving Sorokin a much-needed breather.
It’s a process for the new coach and his players, even though it has to be a condensed process because of where the Islanders sit in the standings. With 35 games to go in the season, they’re 12th by points percentage, two points out of a playoff spot.
“We have to be collecting points because it’s so tight,” Pelech said. “It’s a tough time of the season. But you have to take some positives out of that, continue to build. If we play like that every night we’re going to win games.”
(Top photo: Dennis Schneidler / USA Today)