When the Islanders’ season reached its nadir in November and December, among the many stats bandied about to give a glimpse into the misery was this: They had scored one power-play goal in a month.
We are not talking about the past month, in which they have played six games and seemed to exist as a figment of the imagination for stretches. We are talking about 11 games, in which they got 29 five-on-four chances and converted just one. So yes, things were quite bad.
But since then, their fortunes have flipped around. Not-so-coincidentally, the Islanders are 10 for their last 30 on the power-play and have gone 6-2-3 during that stretch. That is uncharacteristic even for a winning Islanders team — they’ve converted power plays at a rate below league average every year under coach Barry Trotz — but they seem to have found a formula that works.
“I think it’s a lot of detail that you work on in practice,” Jean-Gabriel Pageau said. “You try to change some little details. It’s something we’ve been working on a lot since we’ve been practicing a lot. And guys are starting to click.”
Specifically, the difference has been most noticeable around the net and up top. Anders Lee, who plays the net-front spot on the first power-play unit, picked up power-play goals in the two games before the team’s 11-day break between its last two games. Upon the Islanders’ return, Josh Bailey cleaned up a rebound from Anthony Beauvillier for a power-play goal against the Devils on Thursday night.
That’s not an accident, but a product of positioning.
“I just think that we’ve been moving the puck quicker and we’ve been delivering the puck to the net which makes it seem as though our net front has been more productive, and it has been,” associate coach Lane Lambert said. “But it’s because we’re getting the puck to the net and we have some good people at the net when it gets there.”
That’s where Noah Dobson and Robin Salo, come in. The two defensemen are usually up top, quarterbacking the power-play, with Dobson getting the bulk of the minutes. His offensive development over the last six weeks has taken strides, a particularly noticeable development on the power-play.
During the Islanders’ dry spell, they were scoring 8.29 expected goals per 60 minutes with Dobson on the ice at five-on-four, per Natural Stat Trick. That’s a solid rate, but Sebastian Aho was getting more minutes up top, and the team was producing just 4.5 expected goals (xG) per 60 with him on the ice.
Since the start of December, Dobson has led all skaters in minutes at five-on-four, and Salo’s 6.7 xG per 60 with the second unit has been a noted improvement on Aho’s production. It doesn’t hurt that Dobson’s shot has become a weapon either — he has scored all five of his goals this year in the last six weeks.
“Noah is really coming into his own,” Lambert said. “He’s reading plays a lot better. I think he’s worked a lot on his shot. I think his shot has really improved. And it’s become an element for us up top.
“And Robin, he’s a power-play guy. He’s working his way into that role and he’s been doing a pretty good job of it as well.”
Better puck movement has led to more scoring, which has led to more confidence — a cycle that reinforces itself.
“If you don’t get many goals but you do good things, you try to keep going,” Pageau said. “And now the pucks have started going in and the confidence is rising.”