Islanders new-look ‘aggressive’ offense providing promising early returns

New York Islanders players celebrate following the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Anaheim Ducks, Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022, in Elmont, N.Y. (AP Photo/Julia Nikhinson)

What once was an Islanders shibboleth of structure, defense, and organization has now made way for aggression under head coach Lane Lambert — and it was abundantly clear how good of a system it could be on Saturday night at UBS Arena. 

For a team that had not scored more than six goals at all last season, the Islanders dropped seven on the Anaheim Ducks in a blowout victory in their second game of the season under new head coach Lane Lambert. 

The blueprint was teased all throughout training camp: Defensemen will be involved in the attack far more than in years past to unlock more opportunities for an offense that has often wallowed near the bottom of the Eastern Conference.

“It’s crucial because as we know, it’s a hard league to score in,” Lambert said. “You need help from your defense to join the rush and create some odd-number rushes. Our forwards are doing a really good job of going to the net and when we deliver pucks, we’re there.”

It worked to a tee on Saturday as five of the Islanders’ seven goals were scored by defensemen, including two apiece from Scott Mayfield — who had three goals all of last season — and Robin Salo. Two blueliners having multi-goal games on the same night hadn’t happened for the Islanders since 1993 when Scott Lachance and Vladimir Malakhov each scored two against the Calgary Flames.

The Islanders also didn’t score seven goals in a game at all last season.

“That’s something last year that we lacked a little bit,” Islanders forward Cal Clutterbuck said. “The [other team] was breaking the puck out easy… we’d go to the opposite side of the ice and we’d just kind of be backing off. Everyone skating forward on their toes kind of helps out with that and the D having confidence does as well.”

Instead of high-tailing back toward their own zone when a puck is turned over, defensemen are pressing to make exits more difficult while increasing the chances of forcing a turnover. 

When the Islanders are looking to break out of their own zone, blue liners have the freedom to sense whether or not they could join the rush in hopes of creating an odd-man opportunity.

“I think it’s something we want to implement a little bit more,” Mayfield said. “It’s a part of our game plan. It starts with our forwards being able to backcheck and help us out too. They’re doing a great job of that and that allows us to jump up.

“We wanted to go north and I think we did that… That’s a part of our gameplan. We want to keep doing it.”

Mayfield’s first goal of the night was the perfect example of that when he joined a brewing 2-on-0 break started by forwards Brock Nelson and Anders Lee after forcing a neutral-zone turnover. When Nelson’s desperation poke pass on a puck that flutered just beyond his comfort zone skittered away from Lee, Mayfield made his way toward the Ducks goal to provide another option.

Lee caught up with the puck, made a cut at the goal line, and sent a centering feed that found Mayfield at the left post where he finished into an open net. 

“I think if you look at [Mayfield] in the last couple years, he’s tried to get up in the play,” Lambert said. “There’s always an adjustment period for everyone but I think what he does and what he recognizes pretty well is when to go. It’s an attribute for him to eliminate any risk going the other way.”

Promising early returns for a team that has an awful lot to prove after missing the playoffs last season on the heels of two consecutive Stanley Cup semifinal appearances.

“We just stuck to our game,” Oliver Wahlstrom began in a cliche that had been so often followed by lauding stay-at-home defensive play. 

But not these Islanders.

“We stuck to playing aggressive all three periods,” he continued. “We played good loose hockey, good structure, and we stayed the course. We want to play fast, quick ups, and be an aggressive team… it’s still early in the season but I think we’re going to come along strong this year.”

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