Only one NHL team will have waited longer to begin its 2022-23 season than the New York Islanders.
On Saturday night, the task of proving their window of Stanley Cup contention hasn’t closed finally begins for the Islanders when they host the Buffalo Sabres in Elmont, N.Y.
The Islanders reached the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons last year, when they went 42-31-9 (93 points) and earned a wild-card berth before falling to the Carolina Hurricanes in a six-game Eastern Conference quarterfinal series.
The Islanders and Anaheim Ducks — who missed the playoffs last season — will be the last two teams to make their 2022-23 debuts. The Ducks visit the defending Stanley Cup champion Vegas Golden Knights on Saturday night.
The Sabres, who are aiming to snap the longest postseason drought in NHL history, dropped their season opener Thursday, when they lost to the visiting New York Rangers 5-1.
It seemed as if an era might have ended for the Islanders when they were eliminated with a 2-1 overtime loss to the Hurricanes in April. New York, which reached the NHL semifinals in 2020 and 2021, ranked 23rd in the NHL last season with 243 goals and 30th in the power play at 15.8 percent.
But general manager Lou Lamoriello continued to invest in the defense-first core of the back-to-back semifinalists by re-signing defenseman Scott Mayfield (seven years) and goalie Semyon Varlamov (four years) to long-term deals. The Islanders have allowed 954 goals since the start of the 2018-19 season, fewer than every NHL team except the Boston Bruins and Seattle Kraken, the latter of whom debuted in 2021.
Varlamov will backup Ilya Sorokin, who was a Vezina Trophy finalist last year.
The Islanders also signed left winger Pierre Engvall, whom they acquired from the Toronto Maple Leafs on Feb. 28, to a seven-year deal and will get a full season from center Bo Horvat, who agreed to an eight-year contract shortly after being acquired from the Vancouver Canucks on Jan. 30.
“You can view it as the same group or you can view it as we had two pretty key players that didn’t get to play a full year,” Mayfield told Newsday. “I like the makeup of the team. We’ve had some success. But we’ve got to make sure we find that next level.”
The Sabres, whose 12-year playoff drought is tied for the longest active drought in the four major sports with the NFL’s New York Jets, entered this season with heightened expectations. The Sabres finished just one point behind the Florida Panthers, who reached the Stanley Cup Finals as the eighth seed in the East.
But the Sabres were limited to 12 shots in the first two periods by the Rangers’ 1-3-1 defensive scheme and trailed 3-0 before JJ Peterka scored with 1:30 left in the second.
“It was a challenging night,” Sabres head coach Don Granato said. “It’s not that we haven’t seen 1-3-1’s. We see 1-3-1’s all the time. It’s just that we haven’t seen one in months.”