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Game Preview #74: New Jersey Devils @ New York Islanders

The 100%-certainly playoff-bound New Jersey Devils take on the less-than 100%-certainly playoff-bound New York Islanders. Learn more about tonight’s matchup in this Devils game preview.

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NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs at New York Islanders
Thank Sorokin for the playoff hopes
Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports

The Matchup: The New Jersey Devils (46-19-8) versus the New York Islanders (37-28-9). Opposition Blog: Lighthouse Hockey

The Time: 7:30 PM

The Broadcast: TV - MSGSN, MSGSN2

Playoffs on the Island?

After making the conference final in straight years, losing to Tampa both times, and widely being considererd the second best team in the NHL over that stretch, last year the Islanders dropped out of the postseason after Covid and an extended road-trip due to their new building derailed their season. Entering this year, not many were optimistic that they would be able to get back in: an aging squad (with next to no tinkering from the previous year) in an incrementally tougher division and conference did not make anyone optimistic.

The Islanders are currently defying those beliefs, holding the first wild-card spot in the east, four points (with an extra game played) up on the Panthers who are the first team on the outside. The following is the playoff probabilities for the teams in the Metro at different points throughout the season, per The Athletic.

An extremely underrated story in the NHL this year has been the resurrection on the Island, where they were completely out of it in late-January, having a 10% shot, only to go on an incredible run since to claw their way back in. Since the 26th of January, the Islanders are 9th in points percentage. Before then they were 22nd. For the three teams remaining in the wild-card picture — the Isles, Panthers (who have a 40% chance, per the Athletic) and the Pittsburgh Penguins — two of the three will make it. The Islanders hold pole position (points-wise, currently, Pittsburgh also have a game in hand), and they will give whoever they play in the first round a tough time.

Tight Games

They are coming into this one off a tough loss to Buffalo, being shut-out 2-0 at home. Now, the game was more flattering to the Isles than the scoreline would suggest. This was a tight, playoff-style game, being low-event and tied at 0-0 with both Goalies playing above expectation going into the final ten minutes in regulation. As you can see below (MoneyPuck), the chances were pretty even, in expected-goals terms, but it just so happened that the Sabres got the all-important goal, allowing them to add the empty netter on top.

This was on the same night as the Devils clinched the playoff spot, so they will be equally rested for this game. You have to imagine that that loss must have been pretty emotionally draining, having a chance to distance yourself quite significantly by getting just a goal, but instead losing in that heart-breaking fashion to a goal with just 6:29 to go (off captain Kyle Okposo (of all people), which, I guess, would be symbolic for the Sabres at any rate). The Islanders will come out determined not to lose two in a row, so the Devils have to (unlike they have been playing recently) be ready from the start of the game.

Top Six and Depth

The following is the Islanders’ lineup from the Buffalo game, provided by DailyFaceoff. I would have used the Athletic depth chart, as I usually do, but it is terribly outdated for the forward group, basically including six guys who aren’t playing.

The most striking omission is Mathew Barzal, who has been out injured since mid February, getting hurt against the Bruins on the 18th. Alas, they have still played well without him, retaining a strong points percentage, good for 11th over that span. Number-one center since then has of course been new addition Bo Horvat, who started off very well with his new team, but has stuttered recently, not scoring since the 26th of February (a month ago now!) and registering a total of two assists over that time. The following shows points per game for the Isles forwards over the past two weeks, where they have played six games.

The only top-six Islanders’ forward in the top-five points getters is old-friend Kyle Palmieri. Otherwise it is depth guys. Nelson, Lee and Horvat are 6th, 8th and 10th, respectively, with even Clutterbuck outperforming the latter two. The Islanders have really been carried by their depth over their past run, managing to play 0.500 points percentage hockey, despite the absense of their big-guns. Expect the proverbial four-line game tonight then from the Islanders. Or perhaps two lines, but not the two one would expect.

Pelech and Pulock

Regarding the Islanders’ defensive group, it is given a B- by The Athletic, so essentially league average. What has hurt them this year is the performance of their two top defensemen, Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock. They have performed to 1.5 and 1.0 game score value added performance this year, respectively, (down from 2.5 and 1.5 in the previous season) which puts them only in the 73rd and 63rd percentiles of NHL defensemen. Certainly not bad, per se, but not what you would like from your top pair. Indeed, two seasons ago, the season of the latter of the Islanders’ two conference finals runs, MoneyPuck had the Pelech-Pulock pairing as the 6th best in xG for percentage in the NHL of all D-pairs with 150+ minutes. Last year they were 105th, this year, 106th. So what was once one of the best pairings in the league simply does not cut it at that level anymore, yet the Islanders organisation have not addressed that issue, meaning the Islanders’ D-corps suffers as a result. Again, the group is roughly league average, but the front office with Lou Lamoriello and, ..., eh, well, I guess it it would be only Lou, had accounted for them being at that all-star level. Nothing really to be afraid of here, then.


The Jennings trophy is given each year to the goaltending tandem to have conceded the fewest goals in the regular season. It is supposed to capture the starter-backup dynamic which is so essential in the modern game, where Martin Brodeur isn’t getting 90% of team starts. However, in reality the award simply goes to the team with the best defense, not really respecting the spirit of the trophy, which is trying to recognise a good goaltending duo. Ilya Sorokin and Semyon Varlamov will not win the Jennings trophy this year, given how it is awarded. But if it was a proper award, actually recognising goaltending performances, for my money, they certainly would.

Per HockeyReference, Sorokin has started 52 games, Varlamov 22. They have save percentages of 0.922 and 0.913. They have 5 and 2 shutouts, respectively. Their quality-starts percentages are 0.692 and 0.636 (league average is 0.503). They have a total of 29.8 and 6.0 goals saved above average across their games. Point shares of 12.2 and 4.4 (1st and 9th on the Islanders: the latter is impressive for a guy who has played in only a small fraction of their total games).

The following, from HockeyViz, shows goaltending sequencing this year in the NHL, where the x-axis shows goals saved above expected and the y-axis shows the cost in standings points due to goaltending.

You might not be able to see where the Islanders rank because they are so far up to the right that they almost fly off the page. Essentially, 20 of the Islanders’ 83 standings points this year come from the marginal play of their goaltenders. Boston has gained maybe 18 points thanks to their goaltenders, but they have also got about five tousand more points in total than the Isles, which makes this relative output less impressive. In fairness, both Arizona and Anaheim are bad teams with goaltenders who have given them a large share of points: 7/56 for the Ducks, 13/67 for the Coyotes. Decimally, these translate to 0.24 for the Islanders, 0.125 for the Ducks and 0.194 for the Coyotes (for reference, Boston has 18/119 for 0.15). Among good teams, among bad teams, nobody has more to thank their collective goaltending for than the Islanders. Jennings to Boston indeed.

How do they do it? The following, also HockeyViz, shows the areas where the New York duo save above NHL average. Blue is good. Darker blue is better.

Let me know if you find some sort of weakness here. I certainly can’t imagine one. Varlamov played the other night in Bufallo (casually saving a goal and a half above expected). As such, we get the main man tonight, Ilya Sorokin. Gulp.

Special Teams

A quick note here on the Islanders’ special teams, where they are not an imposing unit. From, if we sum the success rates of all teams’ power-play and penalty-kills, this leaves the Islanders at 16.6% (30th) + 81.8% (10th) = 98.4% (21st) well below league average (100%) with 98.4%. Their penalty kill is good, supressing at a top-ten rate. But that powerplay is tough, mingling with the formidable likes of Arizona, Nashville, San Jose, Montreal, Anaheim, Chicago, Philadelphia (the rest of the bottom 9, in that descending order). Other than Nashville (well, should I really exclude them?), these are the worst teams in the NHL, so not great company. Given that Barzal is out and Horvat is ice cold, maybe we can send out some of the powerplay guys short-handed to go for some offence? there being no way the Islanders gets anything done offensively.

Devils Notes

In his press conference following the Devils having clinched a playoff spot for the first time in five years, and the first time convincingly in forever, Lindy Ruff was extremely proud of his team. Good for him, I would say. He has come under a lot of criticism during his tenure, and there are still a lot of things he does that I disagree with (as I’m sure you can relate to as well), but he has clearly got the best out of a lot of our young guys, who seem to love him.

Jack Hughes, especially, seems to have a great relationship with him. Ruff said so, and Hughes said as much at times last year, (frustratingly to those of us fans who wanted Ruff gone). Well, now Jack Hughes is an official 40-goal scorer, who will most likely hit 100 points by the end of the season. So perhaps sticking with the guy who gets The Big Deal going wasn’t a terrible idea at all.

Something from the Ottawa game that seemed slighlty strange was the 11-7 lineup, scratching Nolan Foote to get an extra D-man in Brendan Smith in. Ruff justified it, saying he wanted Smith in without taking any D out. Personally, in a vaccum I think this does sort of make sense from a time-management perspective, as defensemen always play longer, harder minutes than forwards. Getting an extra guy in to spread those minutes more evenly, while perhaps giving your top forwards some extra minutes, does not seem such a terrible idea, generally. However, in this context, I question the decision to invoke this system for Brendan Smith. The guy clearly provides leadership and locker-room value, but for my part, the less of Smith on the ice, the better.

As I wrote this I wondered what the actual impact of having Smith in the lineup is. With him in the lineup the Devils are 38-15-4, with a points percentage of 0.702. Without him they are 8-4-4 for 0.625. However, this is a limited samle, and Smith only missed one game before the 9th of February, so him being outside the lineup conincides with the worst run of the Devils’ season. I can’t tell you whether it is Smith’s absense which has caused the downturn (I doubt it, as the Devils started playing poorly already in January, when he was still playing regularly) or not. What I can tell you is that I personally want less of him in the lineup.

Your Thoughts

What do you think of tonight’s matchup? Will the Islanders’ top players finally break out (finally from the perspective of an Islanders fan, certainly not a Devils fan), or will they rely on the bottom six again? Are you as impressed by the Islanders’ goaltending as I am? Will the Devils be able to break Sorokin (if I am not mistaken, they have faired relatively well previously)? Brendan Smith, anyone? Anything else I should have mentioned but failed to? Let me know in the comments, and thank you for reading and supporting the site!