Why can’t the Islanders beat the Hurricanes in the postseason?

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The New York Islanders are down, but not out.

When it comes to facing the Carolina Hurricanes in the playoffs, this is a familiar refrain. In this third playoff series between the two teams over the last six postseasons, the Islanders are now 2-10 against the Canes. There haven’t been many blowouts and even Monday’s Game 2, despite being as lopsided in terms of play and shots as possible, was still not decided until the final minutes.

So this isn’t purely a case of a good team putting down an inferior team, even though the regular-season point gaps between the two teams were 20 points last season and 17 points this year. There have been many factors as to why Carolina seemingly has the Isles’ number in the playoffs and why the Isles’ backs are against the wall once more heading into Game 3 on Thursday.


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Patrick Roy said on Wednesday that Ilya Sorokin will start Game 3 in goal, replacing Semyon Varlamov. Carolina will be missing mainstay defenseman Brett Pesce, likely for the rest of the series. But those changes won’t mean much unless the Islanders can become more aggressive, convert more of their chances and maintain their structure against a Canes team that doesn’t just pump shots from everywhere — they attack all over the ice and the Islanders, particularly in some key moments last playoff and this one, have been too slow or too passive to respond.

Here’s a little more on why the Islanders just haven’t been able to beat the Canes in springtime.

Bad matchups

The most obvious fact is that Carolina is a faster team that also plays a faster style. Especially last season and in these first two games, the Islanders are doing much more defending than attacking. Roy may say, as he did after the Game 2 debacle, that blocking shots “means we’re doing a good job defending,” but you do actually need the puck to be successful in today’s NHL.

We’d asked an anonymous Eastern Conference assistant coach for his prediction on this series and one of the numbers to watch was offensive-zone possession. “If Carolina is up around seven minutes, that’s a problem for the Islanders,” he said. “The Islanders need to be above four to five minutes.”

In Game 2, Carolina had the puck in the Isles zone for over 11 minutes. It’s an unheard-of number and it’s hard to imagine how the Canes could sustain that sort of pressure without the last change in Games 3 and 4, but defending that much can wear a team down.

The anonymous coach also said the Islanders were backing up too much in the neutral zone and at their blue line as Game 2 started to get away from them. It’s not the systemic changes that Roy has been preaching to his team; that sort of backing off of pressure is more how the Islanders played under Lane Lambert, to poor results, especially when trying to hold a lead.

The Game 1 Islanders were quite good at forcing the Hurricanes into mistakes at the top of the offensive zone. Even with that, Carolina held a 74-57 shot attempt edge; the 110-28 massacre in Game 2 was a whole other story. Even playing a smart, aggressive game, the Islanders still are hard-pressed to deny the Canes what Carolina does best, which can lead to a lot of coin-flip games that are decided on ugly goals like Stefan Noesen’s Game 1 winner.

Of the 12 playoff games the two teams have played, eight have been tied in the third period. That and the data from the chart above say this isn’t a total mismatch. But the Islanders spend far more of their time trying to fight the Canes off rather than pushing them back.

Bad luck

You need a healthy dose of good luck to progress in the playoffs, so saying the Islanders haven’t had much luck against the Canes in these dozen games isn’t complaining, it’s just reality.

It goes all the way back to Games 1 and 2 in 2019, when Anders Lee was not only whistled for incidental goalie interference to waive off a Mathew Barzal second-period goal in a 0-0 game, but actually called for an interference penalty on Petr Mrazek — the contact was outside the blue paint, which would have surely let the goal stand by today’s standards — and Devon Toews kicked the puck from below the goal line, banking off Curtis McElhinney’s pads and in — a play that likely doesn’t count by today’s standards either, though it might have gone either way.

Either one of those plays could have turned that series. Same with the two ugly overtime winners last spring by Carolina, including Jesper Fast’s Game 2 winner that came after Scott Mayfield took a stick to the face that went uncalled.

The Canes’ ability to score ugly goals, like Noesen’s game winner in the third period on Saturday, is more a product of the way Carolina controls games rather than pure luck. Yes, that one bounced off a couple bodies before it landed on Noesen’s stick in a good position, but the Canes work hard for such opportunities and are ready for those bounces.

Even with that, the Islanders have been unlucky against Carolina.

Bad timing

Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that the Islanders have advanced beyond the second round of the playoffs twice in the last six postseasons, and those are the only times they haven’t seen the Hurricanes. The two teams’ rise from the depths of the Eastern Conference have sort of gone in tandem: Carolina missed the playoffs in nine consecutive seasons before returning in Rod Brind’Amour’s first year behind the bench in 2018-19, the same year Lou Lamoriello and Barry Trotz brought more structure to an Islanders team that had missed the playoffs the two previous years amid lots of upheaval.

There are a few “time and place” rivalries that have been one-sided in the NHL. The New York Rangers got past the Islanders in 1979, but the Isles’ freight train to five consecutive Cup Finals always seemed to run through the Garden. The Washington Capitals lost two straight years to the Pittsburgh Penguins before breaking through on their run to the 2018 Cup. We’ll see if the Toronto Maple Leafs can finally get past the Boston Bruins this first round.

The main issue is the Islanders are a team struggling to make the playoffs and the Hurricanes are a well-oiled machine. When you have three straight 110-plus-point seasons as Carolina has, the first round is rarely a stringent test — it’s once you get deeper, your depth gets tested and your weak spots exposed that things tend to break down.

The Islanders, as Brind’Amour pointed out after Game 1, have been in playoff mode for a month. They were last season as well. When you’ve pushed yourself to your highest level just to get in, the first round and a superior team that has yet to hit its higher gear can be a shock.

And, having said all this, the current series isn’t over. For Islander fans with long memories of heartbreak, however, it just may feel that way.

(Photo: James Guillory / USA Today)

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