Stealing a game on the road levels the playing field. Stealing two? That places the underdog right in the driver’s seat.
The New York Islanders are in serious trouble. Not only do the Carolina Hurricanes now hold a vise grip on this second-round series, but they’ll suit up for Games 3 and 4 in front of a raucous home crowd in Raleigh. Barry Trotz’s men cannot afford to drop their next contest, which means they cannot afford to stay the course. The Islanders have scored one goal through seven periods against Carolina. Moreover, it was an own goal on the penalty kill by Hurricanes defenseman Jaccob Slavin.
Rod Brind’Amour’s club lost Petr Mrazek (lower body), Trevor van Riemsdyk (upper body) and Saku Maenalanen (upper body) to injury on Sunday…and it still prevailed due to a two-goal flurry at the start of the third frame. Even though the Hurricanes were missing their starting netminder and two skaters — not to mention key forwards Andrei Svechnikov, Micheal Ferland and Jordan Martinook — the Islanders couldn’t unlock their defense or backup goaltender Curtis McElhinney. Granted, he played well and New York struck iron a few times, but that’s not good enough. Puck luck may not have the time to normalize over a seven-game series. You have to go out and make your luck.
That could prove difficult, though.
The Islanders feasted on the Pittsburgh Penguins in Round 1 precisely because they didn’t look to push the action. They held a stout defensive posture and waited for mistakes to capitalize on. The Pens were feeling very generous too, as they conceded an endless stream of odd-man rushes and squandered their season as a result.
Trotz’s scheme was tailor-made to foil Mike Sullivan’s. Every single bad habit was exploited, and the more the Penguins grew frustrated, the simpler it was to beat them.
In case you haven’t noticed, Brind’Amour’s team is far more patient and resilient. It can come up empty for long stretches and simply continue to work harder than the opposition, sticking its nose to the grindstone until its sheer number of shots wills the puck into the net. Though Carolina’s offense ranks just ninth (2.67 GPG) in the playoffs, its ability to control 57.3% of the shot attempts at 5-on-5 (1st) exerts constant pressure on the other team and allows it to spend very little time in the defensive zone. That’s why Mrazek can sport a 2.22 GAA despite an ordinary 91.3 SV%.
Carolina doesn’t give up easy offense because it doesn’t cheat for its own. While every team concedes chances, the Hurricanes force you to earn them. This doesn’t play to a counterattacking squad’s strengths.
The open ice and numbers advantage that the Islanders enjoyed in the first round are much scarcer in Round 2. Once they do establish offensive zone time, they aren’t accomplishing much for two reasons. First, Carolina’s defenders are draped all over them. Slavin has been receiving his share of overdue praise — probably because his point totals (10 assists in 9 games) have finally caught the eye of box score watchers — but there’s so much more to his performance than production. His angles and recovery speed are phenomenal. When forwards believe they have a step on him, he erases their time and space in the fraction of a second. It’s eerily reminiscent of prime Duncan Keith. He also carries the puck with supreme confidence, creating additional options and passing lanes for the offense.
Meanwhile, Calvin de Haan has been expectedly solid since returning from injury midway through the conference quarterfinals. He’s posted a 61.6 CF%, 51.5 SCF% and 55.2 HDCF% and provides Brind’Amour with a dependable veteran presence that can be plugged anywhere on the back end.
Then there’s Brett Pesce. The 24-year-old blueliner is perhaps the team’s unsung hero in the postseason. Though his shot and chance shares are actually quite poor relative to his teammates (51.5 CF%, 47.2 SCF%, 46.5 HDCF%), the 6’3”, 206-pounder makes full use of his reach to break up plays and kick-start Carolina’s transition. He may well possess the best stick check in the league, constantly mirroring the puck and looking for an opportunity to disrupt the opposition’s plans.
In addition to their impressive defensive corps, the Hurricanes demand a high level of two-way activity from their forwards. From captain Justin Williams on down to grinders like Greg McKegg, they hound the puck without reprieve. It’s no surprise, then, that they allow the second-fewest shot attempts in the playoffs.
The Islanders sit on the opposite side of the spectrum (15th), and that’s the second reason they’re struggling right now. They like to sit back and counterpunch. Against an opponent that doesn’t offer many openings, that strategy can feel…futile — especially since New York isn’t overflowing with game-changers. Outside of Mathew Barzal (6 points in 6 games) and maybe Jordan Eberle (7 points in 6 games), the team doesn’t boast stars who can slice open defenses at a moment’s notice.
Those two will need to lead the charge and manufacture offense in more crowded areas. That involves winning battles down low and making plays with defenders on your back. Anders Lee, Brock Nelson and Josh Bailey must complement those efforts with strong play along the boards, whereas the point men must find a way to get their shots through the first line of defense. Only Ryan Pulock and Devon Toews have done so thus far. Too often, the Islanders have been repelled at the point of attack. If you can get past that initial wall and extend your zone time, the opportunities begin to present themselves.
All of that is indeed easier said than done against a stingy Hurricanes unit, but there’s no other choice. New York is already down 2-0 in the series and has mustered a single goal. It can no longer rely on its defense alone to generate an attack.
Ultimately, this was always the primary concern with the Islanders: How will they deal with an opponent that works just as hard and is just as diligent in the trenches? This club hasn’t been coached to create offense off the cycle and the past two games have shown its ineffectiveness in that regard. It can’t wait around for good fortune to return. It may actually have to gamble once in a while to uncover the rush opportunities that were so plentiful against Pittsburgh.
New York now stands at a breaking point and needs to find an answer in a hurry.
Unfortunately, Trotz had a couple of years to devise a game plan for the Penguins. He only has a couple of days to figure out the Hurricanes.