The New York Islanders made themselves a playoff team early in the regular season by outskating and outshooting their opponents on a routine basis.
That kind of play can be marginalized in the tight-checking NHL playoffs, but only for so long. Despite getting the best of Washington Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby only once on 40 shots in regulation, the Islanders continued to push play early into overtime Sunday, breaking through on their 42nd shot of the contest to take a 2-1 win on Sunday and a 2-1 lead in their series with the Capitals.
In what has been a found-money season for the emergent Islanders, that’s a good place to find themselves against a team that was projected by more than a few people to win it all this year.
The Isles’ recipe has been to smother their opponents with a four-line offensive attack. To great effect, the strategy has worked. The Islanders finished the season with the fourth-ranked offense in the league (3.0 goals per game) and the second-highest shots per game total — significant numbers in a year in which total goals and power play opportunities were at Dead Puck Era-level lows.
The Islanders weren’t supposed to be a playoff team at the outset of 2014-15, and this kind of offense-first approach isn’t supposed to be playoff hockey in the new clutch-and-grab era.
To be sure, playoff hockey is quantifiably different than its regular season self.
Using data from every regular and postseason NHL game from 2005-06 through today, I identified every hit that was registered on the official play-by-play record. When comparing the total number of non-overtime hits in the more than 11,000 regular-season games and more than 750 postseason games, I found that there’s a massive and statistically significant increase in hits when the playoffs start.
Regular-season games average about 42.0 total hits for both teams prior to overtime. In the playoffs, that number jumps 36 percent to 57.2 pre-overtime hits per game.
While the Islanders are certainly hitters in their own right — they led the league in that category this season, thanks mostly to their lunatic fourth line — they collect their checks while still driving offense, as opposed to teams and players who collect a lot of hits by virtue of never having the puck.
Sunday was just such an example of the Islanders’ possession and scoring chances eventually winning out. While they were outhit by the Capitals by just one recorded instance on Sunday (44 to 43), they’ve been outhit by the Caps in every game of the series.
Perhaps not coincidentally, they’ve also outshot Washington in two of three games, including Sunday’s lopsided 42-25 advantage.
While having the puck is good, simply generating a great volume of shots won’t always win out. Islanders goaltender Jaroslav Halak is a case study in a hot hand defeating scoring chances. His run of rope-a-dope brilliance with the Montreal Canadiens in 2010 ran the top-seeded Capitals and defending champion Penguins out of the postseason, despite the Canadiens having been badly outshot in both of those series’.
Fortunately for the Islanders, the offense has won both with overwhelming shot volume and timely execution.
In Game 1, that meant potting four goals on just 27 shots, good for a 11.5 percent shooting percentage excluding the empty-netter late in the game. Sunday, it meant pouring shot after shot on Holtby. Their 42 recorded shots on Sunday are the highest by either team in any game of the series so far, and only the second time one has recorded more than 30 shots in a game.
While the Islanders have the kind of shooters who can manufacture offense even when scoring chances are held in check, its that kind of high-volume shooting attack that makes them most successful.
After all, the Islanders were a defensively-middling team in the regular season, ranking 23rd in goals against average (2.7 per game) and 26th on the penalty kill while still capturing a playoff berth and 100-plus standings points.
To continue being successful against a more-balanced Washington club, the Islanders will need to continue dictating the puck possession game, if only to keep the Capitals from collecting too many of their own scoring chances against a suspect defense.
It might not be traditional playoff hockey, but it’s worked so far.