After the New York Islanders traded away John Tavares last offseason, no one would have predicted that they might actually be better off without him. Tavares is one of the game’s elite players, but the Islanders just couldn’t figure out a way to win with him. When they dealt him to Toronto, the rest of the NHL would surely not have predicted New York to take control of first place in the Metropolitan Division as the 2018-19 season heads into late January. But, that is exactly where the Islanders are – atop the Metro.

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How Did That Happen?
It’s not often that you trade away one of the NHL’s better scorers and wind up in first place in your division as a result. The first thing the Islanders did was to hire former New Jersey and Toronto general manager Lou Lamoriello. He’s the guy who turned around the Maple Leafs franchise leading them to consecutive playoff berths the past two seasons. 

Lamoriello’s first move was to hire coach Barry Trotz, the same guy who led Washington to its first Stanley Cup last year. With Trotz in place, Lamoriello might have been the only guy who would have predicted the Islanders run to first place in their division.

Where They Stand
After a rough first month of the season, the Islanders have found their groove and have become more comfortable with Trotz’s system. They are now 29-15-4 and have 62 points. New York is 8-2 in its last 10 games and is stifling opposing offenses. The Islanders won their fifth straight game on Sunday, a 3-0 victory over Anaheim. The Islanders’ 62 points is the second-highest total in the Eastern Conference. 

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Mathew Barzal is the team’s top point producer with 44 points. Anders Lee leads the team in goals with 18. Lee has 37 points. Barzal has 13 goals. 

The Big Difference
Where the Isles excel is on defense. As a team, New York has allowed the fewest goals in the NHL (119). They lead the league in goals-against average at 2.42. The team’s pair of goalies are outstanding. Robin Lehner is 15-7-3 with a save percentage of .930 and goals against of 2.02. Thomas Greiss is equally effective with a record of 14-8-1 and a save percentage of .920 and a GAA of 2.50.

Prior to a Tuesday night game with the Chicago Blackhawks, New York had a goal differential of +26. In their previous five games, the Islanders allowed just three goals shutting out its past two opponents. New York has allowed one or fewer goals on 18 occasions this season. 

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Playing Trotz’s style, the Islanders are first in save percentage in five-on-five situations, but also first in shooting percentage in five-on-five. In New York’s last three games, the Islanders held all three opponents to 20 shots or fewer. Defense like that will win the Islanders plenty of games and prepare them for a deep run in the NHL’s postseason. 

Trotz, who was not re-signed by the Capitals after leading Washington to the Stanley Cup title, looks to take the Islanders to the finals for the first time since the 1983-84 season. It would be a huge accomplishment for a team that no one would have thought would be in their current position.

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