What Islanders’ comeback lineups say about Lane Lambert

What Islanders' comeback lineups say about Lane Lambert

However the Islanders are pulling off comeback after comeback, it is time to take the hockey axiom of rolling four lines out of their vocabulary.

Much as it’s true that the Islanders have 12 forwards who are important to their success, coach Lane Lambert has culled the bench into a top nine late in games during the Islanders’ come-from-behind victories against the Rangers and Flames, a byproduct of his aggressive mixing of the lines.

For the record, this is not a criticism of Lambert. What he’s doing is obviously working. The Islanders are 9-5-0, and they have a plus-14 goals differential in the third period. It is, though, an acknowledgement of how that is happening — and may hint at why the Islanders are struggling to put together strong first and second periods (as well as why they must add a forward at the March 3 trade deadline in order to take the next step).

Tracking the forward lines during Islanders games has quickly become an exhausting activity. Against the Rangers, nine different combinations played at least 0:57 at five-on-five, per Natural Stat Trick. Though that is in part due to Cal Clutterbuck’s absence, it’s also a trend dating back to the second game of the season, when Lambert juggled the lines with success against San Jose.

New York Islanders coach Lane Lambert gestures to the team during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2022, in Chicago.
Lane Lambert’s willingness to shorten his forward rotation late in games has helped the Islanders outscore opponents by 14 goals combined in the third period.

The final 10 minutes of the Islanders’ 4-3 win over the Rangers on Tuesday saw more of the same. Brock Nelson scoring on the power play to tie it at 12:46, and Anders Lee scored the winner less than two minutes later. Soon after that, when he had a lead to protect, Lambert stopped playing a top 12.

Matt Martin’s last shift of the game ended with 9:40 to go. So did Nikita Soshnikov’s. Oliver Wahlstrom stepped off the ice for the last time with 5:30 to go.

The domino effects left the Isles with a couple of makeshift lines — Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Casey Cizikas and Josh Bailey played a shift together — but it’s clear Lambert is comfortable playing his best players out of position.

That paid off in a big way on Monday against the Flames, when the trio of Lee, Nelson and Mathew Barzal helped tilt the game in the Islanders’ favor. Part of what made that possible, though, was sitting Wahlstrom for the game’s final 10:29.

Wahlstrom and Martin have been the most common playing-time victims among the forwards, both sitting late in the third period for two of the three recent Islanders’ comeback wins (Martin didn’t play the last 12:50 against Colorado on Oct. 29). It has not been limited to forwards, though — Sebastian Aho’s usage has regularly dropped off late in games, and he played just 8:11 total against the Rangers, thanks to a penalty-kill-heavy second period for the Islanders.

Anders Lee #27 of the New York Islanders scores the game winning goal against Igor Shesterkin #31 of the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on November 08, 2022 in New York City. The Islanders defeated the Rangers 4-3.
Anders Lee scores midway through a third period on Tuesday as the Islanders rallied for a stunning win over the Rangers.
Getty Images

Despite the (well-deserved) feel-good vibes around the dressing room right now, figuring out what’s going wrong in their slow starts is the next step for this team, and that means rolling four lines without putting themselves on the back foot.

There is nothing wrong with the way they are winning games — again, they are 9-5-0 and have a real chance of being in first place of the Metropolitan Division by the end of the week. Still, Lee had a point on Tuesday night when he admitted, “It’s not a trend we want to have.” Fun as it may be, it’s not ideal when Barzal plays 24:01, as he did against Calgary, nor is it sustainable through 82 games.

Right now, though, there is no shame in continuing with what’s worked.

Seems like old times for Pelech-Pulock

After Ryan Pulock missed three months last season and never quite regained his form after returning from a lower-body injury, it’s time to start counting him and Adam Pelech as one of the league’s best defensive pairs again.

New York Islanders defenseman Ryan Pulock (6) and New York Rangers center Vincent Trocheck (16) battle for the puck in the first period of an NHL hockey game, Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022, in Elmont, N.Y.
Ryan Pulock appears to have shaken off the rust after his 2021-22 season was derailed by a lower-body injury.

According to Natural Stat Trick, Pelech and Pulock have a 56.54 expected goals percentage and the Islanders have outscored opponents, 13-7, when they share the ice. Among skaters, they lead the Islanders in ice time and have regularly drawn the toughest matchups.

“Any time you come back from an injury, it takes a little bit,” Lambert said Monday. “You’re trying to get up to game speed or catch a moving train, so to speak. I think that always is tough for any player. I think [Pulock’s] over that hurdle now.”

Special-teams regression

A penalty kill operating at a 90 percent success rate couldn’t last forever. Neither could a power play converting around 10 percent.

Jean-Gabriel Pageau #44 of the New York Islanders skates with the puck against Braden Schneider #4 and Sammy Blais #91 of the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on November 8, 2022 in New York City.
Moving Jean-Gabriel Pageau to the first power-play unit has sparked his game and improved the Islanders’ potency with the man advantage.
NHLI via Getty Images

It’s not especially surprising that the Islanders have given up six power-play goals in as many games, nor that they’ve scored five power-play goals in as many games. As well as the PK was operating, it still leaned heavily on goaltending to go eight games without giving up a single power-play goal. And as for the power play, switching Jean-Gabriel Pageau to the first unit and putting Kyle Palmieri on the second — where he scored on Tuesday night — has sparked both successfully.