The NY Islanders have been a befuddling team this season. They seem to outperform their opponents in the 1st and 2nd periods and then skate back on their heels in the 3rd. Last night, they held on after Simon Holmstrom's short-handed goal with 1:33 left to play, but not without some hold-your-breath moments as Semyon Varlamov needed to make multiple glove saves with the team protecting the lead while playing 6-on-4 as time wound down.
The Islanders have now allowed 12 game-tying goals in the 3rd period after allowing just 8 of them all last season. Furthermore, the collapse with 6 seconds left against the Toronto Maple Leafs is now the second time this season the Islanders have given up the lead with less than a minute left in regulation. This is an unprecedented pace that has fans asking, "How much longer can this continue?"
In 2022-23, the Islanders Achilles heel was the powerplay. To say it bluntly, the powerplay was nonexistent at 15.8%. This season, they have done a complete 180 having a 24.3% success rate. However, last season, the penalty kill had an 82.2% success rate compared to 73.2% this season. These examples show how certain parts of the game can be fixed or overlooked during the offseason when changes must be made.
With a veteran "win-now" team, the Islanders cannot wait until the offseason to fix their 3rd-period problem. This is a problem that cannot be overcome, like the powerplay struggles of 2022-23, where the team simply played better 5 on 5. That leaves the question, what must Lane Lambert change right now to fix the Islanders' biggest problem?
1. Alexander Romanov cannot be on defense in the final minutes
The one constant in the Islanders 3rd period collapses is Alexander Romanov. He has now been on the ice in 8 of the 12 game-tying goals including the Morgan Reilly stunner against the Maple Leafs. Butch Goring even pointed out many of Romanov's clearing attempts have been "soft" and is still miscommunicating with his line partner. Ideally, Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock would be on defense late in games. With Samuel Bolduc continuing to turn the puck over in big situations like the one that led to Auston Matthew's goal, he cannot be trusted in this situation either. This leaves the solution of trying Mike Reilly in this spot until Pelech is healthy or Romanov finds his groove.
2. Play skill players instead of the defensive forwards
Another constant has been the defensive-minded forwards struggling late in the 3rd period. We have seen open net shots taken with J.G. Pageau, Casey Cizikas, and Cal Clutterbuck on the ice too many times in this situation now. With Cizikas and Clutterbuck struggling immensely on the penalty kill this season, they can be utilized earlier in the period to save energy for the skill players. Other teams have taken this approach, including the Maple Leafs using John Tavares on the penalty kill. In other words, the Islanders cannot have Mathew Barzal and Brock Nelson on the bench late in games with a lead anymore. The offense has been nonexistent in the final minutes, which has led to more shots on Ilya Sorokin.
3. Do not shuffle the lineup late in games
Lambert has made a habit of having Pageau take face-offs for the Identity Line in the 3rd period. Right after, Pageau must skate off the ice for Hudson Fasching or Julien Gauthier, who has been their regular linemates recently. This takes the offense completely out of sync having to change part of the line immediately after a faceoff. While it makes sense to have Pageau take faceoffs given his 56.1% success rate, it’s not like Cizikas has been bad at 53.1%. The time it takes for a player to change out for another is just giving up an opportunity for the men on the ice. In short, Lambert should not switch lines around with the game in jeopardy.