TEMPE, Ariz. — The starts have been better, a result of a change in philosophy from the beginning of the season. But the long stretches of the Islanders getting pinned in their own end, while failing to get two points against a lesser opponent, remain disturbing trends.
The Islanders dropped their third straight game on Friday in Arizona, 5-4 to the lowly Coyotes, and are now just 2-5-1 in their last seven games. They’re perilously close to dropping out of the Eastern Conference’s top eight, and are 0-1-1 on a key five-game road trip that is about to get much tougher with games at Vegas, Colorado and the Rangers on the horizon.
The stellar goaltending that won them games earlier in the season is suddenly leakier now, too, as goalie Ilya Sorokin lost his fifth straight game, allowing five goals on 29 shots.
But Sorokin, outplayed by counterpart Karel Vejmelka, was one of several reasons the Islanders lost on Friday. While they’ve been able to get up against some of the better teams in the league, including Tuesday’s 4-3 shootout loss in Boston and a 6-4 win over the Devils on Dec. 9, they often struggle against teams lower than them in the standings. Of their 13 regulation losses, eight have been to teams beneath them, including two to the Coyotes, who also won at UBS Arena on Nov. 10, 2-0.
The Islanders recognize this trend.
“That’s fair,” defenseman Ryan Pulock said on Thursday. “I think we’ve played some really good hockey, and we’ve played some just average. I think the biggest thing for us is consistency. We’ve got to find that. It doesn’t matter who we’re playing, every single night we (need to) bring the game that we need to play to give ourselves a chance. You’re not going to win every night, no matter where the teams are in the standings. There’s some nights you’re just not going to win.”
They weren’t able to win on Friday despite jumping out to a 2-0 first-period lead. The Islanders recorded 10 of the first 13 shots, including goals from Sebastian Aho and Mathew Barzal, but an Anthony Beauvillier high-sticking minor in the first period turned the game on its head. The Coyotes cut the lead to 2-1 shortly after the penalty expired, and then reeled off two more in the second to take a 3-2 lead. The Islanders re-tied it at 3-3 before the second intermission and succumbed in the third.
After Barzal’s goal at 13:33 of the first period, the Coyotes registered 17 of the next 18 shots, including three goals.
Did we mention the Coyotes are 29th in the overall league standings?
“I thought we started well,” head coach Lane Lambert said. “I thought we outplayed them. And then I thought when they gained momentum we had trouble getting it back. I thought we got outworked for a portion of that game, and that’s unacceptable.”
Zach Parise said: “They grabbed some momentum off their power play. And then felt like it got their top guys into the game a little bit. Then they started wheeling around in the offensive zone. The sooner we can kill those plays and not let that happen the less time we’re going to spend in our own zone and the less chance for breakdowns and less (of a chance) for some fluky goals like they got.”
Killing plays in the defensive zone will be more difficult than normal as Adam Pelech (head) remains out, with no timetable to return. That he’s not even on the trip yet suggests he’ll miss Saturday’s game, and probably Monday’s in Colorado, too, if not more after that.
“I think there’s times when teams get moving in our zone,” Lambert said. “We have to find a way to get a puck stopped, and get pucks out.”
As for Sorokin’s play lately, Lambert said: “I don’t think that was his best game. There’s moments in a season when things will happen like that, and he’ll bounce back.”
If there’s one positive to the Islanders’ play lately, it’s they have been buzzing at the outset. The opposite was their biggest issue through the first month and a half of the season.
That could be the result of fewer morning skates, a trend that has been getting more popular in recent years. Rather than gather the team at the arena for a brief morning skate in order to prepare for the game later that night, head coaches opt to let the players do, well, whatever they want. The aim, of course, is to preserve energy for later that night.
Typically teams only skipped morning skates when it was the second of a back-to-back situation, but that’s not the case anymore.
Lambert began pulling back on them on Dec. 2, when the Islanders, after practicing the day before, didn’t skate the morning of their home game with the Nashville Predators. The result was a 4-1 loss, but not having enough energy wasn’t the problem. In fact, the Islanders managed a season-high of 49 shots that game. A pair of empty net goals by Nashville made the score look more lopsided than it actually was.
The Islanders practiced the next day, but once again skipped the morning skate on Dec. 4 before beating the Blackhawks, 3-0. Same thing a few days later — a practice on Dec. 8, and no skate on Dec. 9 before they beat the Devils.
Friday’s start against the Coyotes was another example. The Islanders practiced in Tempe on Thursday but didn’t skate on Friday morning. They were the dominant team early and looked to be on the verge of pushing Arizona out of the game before it went off the rails.
“I think we’ve had some good starts, some better starts,” Lambert said before Friday’s game. “We talked about our starts earlier this year. We have a lot of games coming up in the next eight days with some travel involved so it just makes sense.”
Now, the trick will be to build off of those starts. It didn’t happen Friday, and if the Islanders can’t find a way to start playing more consistent hockey and taking care of games against teams they need to beat, they’re not going to be in playoff position for long.
“The start was OK. We just took our foot off the gas,” said Kyle Palmieri, who played for the first time since Nov. 21. “Some good things, but a lot of bad things.”
(Top photo of Islanders goaltender Ilya Sorokin: Rick Scuteri / Associated Press)