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‘Forging an identity’; How the Islanders became Metro’s top team

Barry Trotz was asked how the Islanders got to this point so far this season. He used the phrase “forging an identity”. It’s one of those phrases that doesn’t mean much at first glance, yet in so few words it shows exactly why the Islanders are in first place in the Metro.

If you would have told most Islander fans they’d be in first place in mid January they would have scoffed at you. Their franchise star abandoned the team, their signings of 4th line players raised more questions than gave answers, and most fans were more worried about how they could compete for Jack Hughes, not the playoffs.

Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz came to the Islanders with one mission; Turn the team back into a respectable franchise and make them a perennial contender. Trotz and Lou have done that every stop of the way in each spot they’ve hit separately. Now they get to build something special together.

It all started on the eve of the season when Anders Lee was named captain. Lee is about as gritty a captain as you can have in this league. He is always willing to go to the dirty areas to scoop out a puck or score, and will be the first to defend his teammates.

Then came the Western Conference road trip. The Islanders had played well up to that point but hadn’t made any headway in the standings. They were a slightly above average team who were on the fringe of the playoffs. The trip to Colorado, Dallas, Vegas and Arizona changed them. They were able to grab three of four wins and haven’t looked back since.

They’ve won 14 of their last 17 games and in that stretch have shut out the defending Stanley Cup champions, the cup favorites in Tampa, and an old nemesis in Toronto that has one new enemy on it.

Their goaltending has been stellar. Thomas Greiss and Robin Lehner are playing the best hockey of their career. Lehner is first in GAA and Save %, and is 10-1 in his last 11 games.

Each line on the team has a purpose. The top six has been fantastic of late, with Jordan Eberle scoring five goals in his last seven games. Josh Bailey scored the game winner on Friday night, Mathew Barzal has created a scoring opportunity every time he’s on the ice, and Brock Nelson is slowly turning into one of the best two way centers in the league.

The bottom six deserves their credit too. For all the huss and fuss about Josh Ho-Sang being sent down, that third line has started to produce again. Val Filppula scored the OT winner against the Blues last week, and Michael Dal Colle scored the first of his career against the Devils.

The best fourth line in hockey is just that. Cal Clutterbuck has rediscovered his scoring touch, and Casey Cizikas and Matt Martin have already had career years. They can match up against just about every top line in the NHL and most recently have shut down Alex Ovechkin and Nikita Kucherov.

The defense doesn’t get nearly enough credit for how well they’ve played. Nick Leddy has had a rough go but overall he and the shot blocking wonder Johnny Boychuk form a solid pair. Devon Toews and Scott Mayfield are probably the best pair on the ice right now, and Toews is going to be a difference maker for this team for a very long time. Adam Pelech isn’t great, but his partner Ryan Pulock more than makes up for it with his slick puck handling skills and good positioning.

Most of these changes are coaching related, but the players deserve credit too. At this point last season the Islanders had given up 173 goals. Now? They’re first in the league with 119 goals given up. Barry Trotz has this team playing the best defensive hockey they’ve played in years. They have a dynamic enough offense and fantastic goaltending.

All the moves made in the offseason were made for a reason. Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz had a plan in mind with this team. So far, it’s worked wonders and it’s a testament to two men who know exactly what they’re doing.

Regardless of what happens this season, this team is in much better hands than they were just a year ago. They are accountable for their actions, hard to play against, and have become one of the NHL’s top stories so far.

They have a Stanley Cup winning coach, a multiple Stanley Cup winning General Manager, and a pipeline of young talent that’s been coming in for years.  They’re only going to get better as the years go by, and as mentioned before they’re in the best hands possible.  It’s all about forging an identity, and so far the identity the Islanders have forged is that of a very good hockey team.

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