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Islanders looking to fix ‘breakouts’ as inconsistency plagues them

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Lane Lambert has spent the season trying to say as little as possible when in front of reporters. So when he criticized specific elements of the Islanders’ performance following Sunday night’s 4-1 loss to the Kraken, it perked up the ears.

“We weren’t clean on our breakouts,” Lambert said. “It starts there. You can’t play with speed if you don’t execute or exit your zone cleanly and we didn’t do that. Then, when we did have the puck in the neutral zone at times, we turned it over instead of getting it in deep and establishing our forecheck.”

The Islanders spent much of Monday’s practice at Rogers Arena working on breakouts. But more telling than the minutiae is that entering Game 39 of the season, the Islanders are still struggling to find consistency in how they play.

The Islanders won three games on the hop before venturing out West for a four-game trip, clinically suppressing shots and forechecking as they gave up just three goals across those victories. The Kraken game was so bad, though, with the Isles giving up more shots than they generated on the power play, that Lambert went to an option he emphatically shot down less than a week ago and changed the composition of his five-on-four units at practice.

“That was last week,” he said. “Things have changed for sure.”

New York Islanders coach Lane Lambert gestures to the team during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2022, in Chicago.
Lane Lambert pointed out the Islanders’ struggles in breakouts.

It’s nearly the midpoint of Lambert’s first season in charge of the Islanders and this season will be judged almost entirely on whether the team makes the playoffs. At 21-15-2 entering Tuesday’s game against the Canucks, they’re on the wrong side of the cutline, albeit only due to the Penguins — who are tied with them at 44 points and have one fewer regulation win — owning a game in hand. All of five points separate the Islanders, in sixth place and barely out of the playoffs, from the second-place Devils.

For much of the season, the Islanders have played up to good competition, with most of their poor performances coming against worse opposition. To their credit, they’ve also weathered a slew of injuries about as well as anyone could reasonably expect.

Even after Semyon Varlamov was activated on Monday, the Islanders are down a number of regulars, with Oliver Wahlstrom, Adam Pelech and Simon Holmstrom skipping the trip entirely while Cal Clutterbuck and Kyle Palmieri try to work their way back from injuries in time to play in Western Canada.

Still, though, the team’s inconsistency has been a killer, and the three games that make up the rest of this trip will be a major test. The Canucks have been in a spiral all season, with speculation surrounding the future of their coach, Bruce Boudreau, as well as trade rumors swirling around star center Bo Horvat. But the Oilers and Flames, who they’ll see next, are right in the thick of the playoff race.

The 1-for-30 streak on the power play the Isles have over their last 10 games can’t continue. And the 4-4-2 record they hold over that time, while admirable for how they’ve fought through myriad issues, won’t be good enough to make it in an uber-competitive playoff race.

Lambert has said he views the season in 10-game segments. And while Games 39 through 41 would make up different segments if he prefers round numbers, they can add a much more positive sheen if the Islanders look more like they did in the three games preceding Sunday than against the Kraken.

“No choice,” captain Anders Lee said following the Kraken game. “This is a four-game, important road trip. Obviously dropped the first one, so the next one’s big.”

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