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Hawks show Isles' streak was suspect

1/10/2011

The Islanders lost 5-0 to the Chicago Blackhawks Sunday night. Normally a lopsided beating by the reining Stanley Cup champs wouldn’t register as unusual, but given the Islanders’ 8-2-1 record coming into that game it sure seemed to be a hasty reversal of fortune.

But after breaking down that hot streak a little bit, the one-sided Sunday loss may not be that strange at all.

Over the course of the Islanders’ streak they dialed up goal scoring and seriously cracked down on the opposition. In the Isles’ first 28 games, they averaged a mere 2.1 goals per game, while yielding 3.43. Simply put, that’s pretty wretched and given these figures it was no shock to see the Islanders dueling with the New Jersey Devils for occupancy of the NHL cellar.

Then something sensational happened and the Islanders seemingly blossomed. During the last 11 games heading into Chicago, the Isles upped their goals per game average to 3.01 while cutting goals against to 2.36 per contest. You don’t need to be a genius to see how those two drastic changes in the scoring department could lead to an 8-2-1 hot streak.

Another encouraging sign: The Isles’ core of young talent was leading the way during the streak. John Tavares was averaging better than a point per game (six goals, eight assists) heading into ChiTown. D Andrew MacDonald smoothly transitioned to his role on the top defensive pairing by posting 10 assists. Josh Bailey potted three goals and three assists after being recalled from the AHL and five goals and four helpers from Blake Comeau were notable as well.

The Isles were especially clicking on the power play. New York averaged 1.1 goals per game with the man advantage over the previous 11 games, half a goal better than their season average through the season’s first 28 games. A man down, the Isles improved their PK percentage by 6.4 percent during the streak.

Those are all reasons for optimism as this young club continues to develop. But there are a few signs that seem to indicate the Islanders are about to come back to Earth.

By looking a little closer at special teams we start to see why the previous 11 games may have been a skewed sample. The Islanders may have outscored their opponents 34-26 over that stretch, but if you look only at even-strength performance, usually one of the best predictors of future success, the Islanders were just better than even (22 goals for, 21 against). That’s not a bad mark at all, but it’s not one that indicates the Islanders can keep playing .800 hockey.

The real discouraging mark comes in the shot department. Despite their success, the Islanders were outshot 409 to 293 during the hot stretch. That’s an awful lot of reliance on the goaltending trio of Rick DiPietro, Nathan Lawson and Kevin Poulin.

On average, NHL teams score on about nine percent of their shots. The Islander opponents converted just six percent. Had those foes clicked at the NHL average rate they would have potted 36 goals in the previous 11 games, two more than the Islanders, who enjoyed a shooting percentage of 11.6 percent. If you believe in regression to the mean, it looks like the Isles have just been enjoying a stretch of good luck that coincided with some timely breakouts by their young stars.

For the previous 11 games, the Islanders seemed to be on fire. Turns out the may have just been playing with it. Sunday in Chicago they got burned. The young core is a solid one and lately demonstrated their vast potential. But if the Isles can’t crack down on their opponents’ shot totals, they're more than likely going to get burned again.