Though the New York Islanders’ drive is undeniable, they tend to fly by the seat of their pants early in games. Their structure is looser and they commit far more turnovers than you might expect from a Barry Trotz-coached team.
Since the beginning of the playoffs, the Islanders have outscored opponents 8-7 in the first period. That’s more than acceptable, but consider their increasingly dominant performance in the ensuing two frames: 15-9 in the second period and 19-5 in the third. In other words, if you don’t take advantage of their valleys, their peaks become almost insurmountable.
That Jekyll-and-Hyde goal differential has become even more pronounced in the club’s second-round series against the Philadelphia Flyers: 1-4 in the first period, 4-1 in the second and 8-1 in the third. Once the Islanders shrug off their slow starts, their pressure becomes suffocating, tightening like a vice grip with every shift in the offensive zone. They build a fortress around their slot and buzz around their opponent’s, controlling just 46.8% of the total shot attempts but 56.8% of the high-danger opportunities in Round 2.
The Flyers were unable to escape that pattern on Sunday night.
After scoring a huge goal to enter the third period tied 1-1, Philadelphia took the full brunt of New York’s late-game charge. The Islanders registered a 58.3 HDCF% and 61.9% of the expected goals on their way to two markers and a 3-1 series stranglehold.
While they’ve produced 3.31 goals per game (5th) in the playoffs, they don’t really conjure their own chances so much as capitalize on your mistakes. Considering how doggedly they force you to compete throughout the game, those errors become plentiful down the stretch.
Barely one minute into the third period, the Flyers seemed ripe for the picking:
First, Brian Elliott turns the puck over behind his net, creating a solid look for Mathew Barzal. Then Philippe Myers flips the puck right to Scott Mayfield, who feeds Jordan Eberle to extend the play. The crafty winger proceeds to dance past a pair of defenders before attempting a spectacular one-handed deke.
Philadelphia’s outlook didn’t improve from there.
On an ordinary faceoff loss, James van Riemsdyk doesn’t close on Adam Pelech quickly enough, allowing the rearguard to fire a shot through traffic and off the post:
About two minutes later, the Flyers keep a poor gap at their blue line, which affords Barzal the room to push the defense back and provide Anders Lee with a decent opportunity. Travis Konecny flubs his clearance in the slot and Eberle gets yet another golden opportunity in a scoring area:
This isn’t a matter of the Islanders unlocking the Flyers’ defense through pure skill. They’ve simply learned how to excel at the long game. The war of attrition. They put you through the wringer armed with the knowledge that they’ll eventually reap the rewards. Better yet, they receive contributions from a variety of sources. New York is icing 10 players with at least two points in the conference semifinals. By contrast, only four Flyers have reached that threshold.
New York’s depth came through once again in Game 4:
Jean-Gabriel Pageau capitalizes on Matt Niskanen’s sluggish reaction and a terrible read by Ivan Provorov to beat Elliott five-hole on a breakaway.
Roughly three minutes after that, Niskanen arrives late on his pinch and Konecny stops skating as the forward in support:
The result? Anthony Beauvillier deftly kicks the puck to Brock Nelson, who is granted a 2-on-1 alongside Josh Bailey. They thread the puck through Provorov like he’s not even there to claim the insurance goal and eventual game-winner.
The Flyers seemed so drained from battling throughout the game that they had nothing left in the tank. Unfortunately, they haven’t established many cushions to lean on either. Ever since its matchup against Montreal, Philadelphia has retreated into a defensive shell and tried to outlast its opponents with stellar goaltending and fortunate bounces. It scraped by a mediocre Canadiens squad, and the muck-it-up formula obviously isn’t working against an imposing Islanders unit that thrives in that exact setting. With their Game 4 loss, the Flyers have dropped back-to-back contests for the first time since early January:
Flyers lose back-to-back games for the first time since January 4-7
— Sportsnet Stats (@SNstats) August 31, 2020
Even in their Game 2 overtime victory, the Flyers could only watch helplessly as New York scored three unanswered goals to force the extra session. If not for a fluky deflection, Philadelphia’s season would likely already be over.
Regardless of its lack of star power, New York is balanced, hungry and only gets better as games wear on. It boasts size, speed, one of the finest defensive pairings in the world (Ryan Pulock-Adam Pelech) and responsible bottom-six centers (Pageau, Casey Cizikas). Due to the Islanders’ ceaseless motor and control of the trenches, merely keeping up with them saps all of your energy. They never stop hustling, and when you start running on fumes, they hit full steam.
They’re built for the grind.