Islanders defense searching for answers amid early 2023-24 slump

Pelech Sorokin Islanders
New York Islanders goaltender Ilya Sorokin (30) looks up after Colorado Avalanche’s Cale Makar (8) scored a goal during the first period of an NHL hockey game Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2023, in Elmont, N.Y. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

ELMONT, N.Y. — No smorgasbord of showstopping saves from Ilya Sorokin can stop the leaking of the New York Islanders’ defense. 

The normally staunch unit has been ripped open for 15 goals in their last three games, headlined by a 7-4 loss on Tuesday night against the Colorado Avalanche in which they allowed 40 shots on Sorokin’s goal — five beating him — before a pair of empty-netters in the final minute of regulation iced things. 

“We still have to clean it up,” defenseman Ryan Pulock said. “I think a couple of little mistakes ended up in the back of the net… Whenever we made little errors on coming back into the D-zone, it seemed like they were able to capitalize on it.”

But the mistakes seem to wide-ranging, which has led to an abundance of shots making their way toward goal. After holding the Arizona Coyotes to just 14 shots on Oct. 17, the Islanders allowed 39 shots in a 5-4 loss to the New Jersey Devils, 43 shots in a 3-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday, and 41 shots to the Avalanche.

“There’s a little bit of both and the individual mistakes are within the structure,” head coach Lane Lambert said. “So the structure breaks down when individual mistakes are made. But at the end of the day, we have to move forward and practice and we’ll get back to work.”

Noah Dobson Islanders Avalanche
New York Islanders’ Noah Dobson (8) and goaltender Ilya Sorokin watch as Colorado Avalanche’s Nathan MacKinnon (29) skates toward the bench after scoring a goal during the second period of an NHL hockey game Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2023, in Elmont, N.Y. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Four of Colorado’s first five goals came via even-strength with the only theme being that defenseman Adam Pelech was on the ice for each of them. 

In a 1-1 game in the first period, Avalanche star defenseman Cale Makar blew past three Islanders, including Pulock, to roof a backhander over Sorokin.

The Islanders battled back with two second-period goals to take the lead, but a 13.2-second lapse in the final minute of that stanza put them behind the eight-ball once again. 

Forward Casey Cizikas retreated toward Sorokin’s net rather than close down Avs defenseman Bowen Byram, who had ample time to move in from center point to send a wrister into the upper-left corner of the net. The Islanders then blew their coverage seconds later, allowing Nathan MacKinnon to slot home a go-ahead wrister with 28.8 seconds to go.

“I think it’s something we’ll look at and if we have to make changes, we’ll make changes on the way we’re playing certain things,” Pulock said. “Sometimes we just need to be sharper in little areas and sometimes we’re maybe over-backchecking too much and giving them lanes. It’s something that has kind of hurt us maybe a little bit the last few games and it’s something that we’re going to have to make sure we clean up.”

There has been extra stress put on the Islanders’ top two defensive pairs of Pelech and Noah Dobson along with Alexander Romanov and Pulock. With Scott Mayfield nursing a lower-body injury that has held him out of the last four games, Pelech (22:08 of ice time on Tuesday night), Pulock (24:57), and Dobson (26:25) have been playing major minutes in an attempt to cover the third pairing of Samuel Bolduc and Sebastian Aho.

“I think they’re playing a lot of minutes, for starters, with Mayfield out,” Lambert said of their recent struggles. “They’re battling against the other teams’ top players so keeping it simple would be one of the things that we would continue to work on.

“There’s no question that we have some corrections to make. Again, it’s early in the season. We have many games left and we will look forward to making the corrections and getting back out there on Thursday.”

For more on the Islanders, visit AMNY.com