New-age test will prove value of Islanders’ old-school identity

The puck was dropped on the neutral zone side of the Montreal line, 1:40 remained in the game, and goaltender Carey Price was itching to get to the bench for the extra attacker with the Canadiens down 2-1 at the Coliseum.

But the Islanders were having none of that, turning back the Canadiens not once, but twice, as they tried to advance the puck out of harm’s way. It took 55 seconds for the Habs to pull Price, and by that time, time essentially had run out on Montreal.

“Islanders hockey,” Barry Trotz said of the effort his team produced in Thursday’s 2-1 victory in which Anders Lee snapped a 1-1 draw at 17:03 of the third period off a bodacious two-on-one feed from Mat Barzal. “We fixed our battle [lel].”

There are still games to be won and points to be gained before the checkmark signifying playoff qualification can be placed in front of the team’s name. But barring a dramatic dive, the Islanders will be playing postseason hockey with a team built for traditional postseason hockey.

The question is whether a traditional playoff hockey team such as this one will be able to succeed in a Stanley Cup tournament that will follow a season in which scoring chances have dramatically increased and in which offense once again has a prominent place in the equation.

For while the Islanders are on track to become the first NHL team in a century to go from the worst goals-against average to the best in the span of one year by slicing 1.25 goals-per off the board (from 3.57 to 2.33), their offensive output is down by more than a third-of-a-goal per (2.81 from 3.18) through a season in which league-wide scoring is up from 2.97 to 3.04 a game per team.

Although Thomas Greiss, strong in this one turning away 33 shots, leads the league in save percentage and his partner, Robin Lehner (one of the canniest free-agent signings of last summer) is fourth (and Jaro Halak second in Boston, don’t you know!), Barzal has one goal in his last 17 games, Jordan Eberle has none in his last 16, Josh Bailey has one in his last 13 and Anthony Beauvillier has three in his last 15.

Indeed, the Islanders have scored two goals or fewer in five of their past seven games and are ranked 15th in goal scoring among teams currently in playoff position. The Blues are 16th.

So, have the Islanders mastered the style that will still be necessary to win in the playoffs or have they mastered analog technology in a digital world? Can they outscore teams when and if necessary?

“I think the game has evolved and different teams are built differently,” said Trotz, who understands playoff hockey as well as anyone, coming off his Cup with the Capitals a year ago. “For us to try and play the way Tampa does wouldn’t work for us.”

Anders LeePaul J. Bereswill

The Islanders sure played well enough in this one to dictate the terms of engagement against a speed team that was trapped in slow motion most of the night. This was a match that should have brought desperation out of a Montreal team locked in a struggle with Columbus and Carolina for the final Eastern Conference wild-card spot, but the Habs either forgot to declare it at customs or had it snuffed by the Islanders’ dogged and determined 60-minute effort away from the puck.

The Canadiens were never allowed to gain real traction in this one, even after taking it into the third at 1-1 after Price spent most of the first period under siege and reacted as if it were just another night of picking cherries. For the longest time, it seemed as if the Montreal goalie would be able to steal one, but instead, Barzal stole the puck from Max Domi and Lee put the winner past Price.

Instead, the Islanders persisted.

“We’re back to our Islanders identity,” Trotz said. “And our identity this year is the way we have to play to have success. And we’ve won 41 games, so we’ve outscored 41 teams. We’re not going to play the way [other teams] want us to play. We’re going to play the way we need to play.”

Now and in the playoffs.

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