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Islanders Playing Almost Perfect Hockey, but Expectations Are Being Tempered

Dave Lozo@@davelozoNHL National Lead WriterOctober 15, 2014

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 14: The New York Islanders celebrate a goal by Brock Nelson #29 (L) at 4:50 of the third period against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on October 14, 2014 in New York City. Joining Nelson are (l to r) Travis Hamonic #3, Ryan Strome #18, Thomas Hickey #14 and Mikhail Grabovski #84. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

NEW YORK — Jack Capuano had none of the mannerisms of a coach who just witnessed his team complete a three-goal road win against an archrival.

In fact, he looked and sounded like a coach who had just taken an unacceptable beating at the hands of an inferior team.

“I was disappointed in the second period because the things that we’ve talked about,” a visibly frustrated Capuano said, “twenty-five seconds become 50-second shift times, not winning the change game, not placing pucks where they need to be placed, grinding it out, doing the right things and we just got too individualistic. We didn’t use our points in the offensive zone.

“We weren’t working as a unit of five, and that bothered me."

The New York Islanders played a brutal second period Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden, no question about it. But they scored four times in the third period to beat the New York Rangers 6-3 and improve to 3-0-0, their best start to a season since 2001-02 when they opened the year with four straight wins.

It's the type of start to a season, one that had newfound positive expectations, for which coaches would sacrifice mascots. Yet here was Capuano not only tempering enthusiasm but also borderline spitting on it.

The Islanders are 3-0, but maybe Capuano is right to not celebrate it.

The perfect record is the result of two wins against the winless, bottom-feeding, ravaged-by-injury Carolina Hurricanes, who suffered the indignity of a 4-3 home-shootout loss to the Buffalo Sabres, who are only an NHL team in name, and their win against the similarly decimated Rangers.

It's unfair to criticize the Islanders for that, as it's not as though they created the schedule, broke Jordan Staal's leg and broke Dan Boyle's hand. And against that inferior competition, they've run the show territorially.

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 14:  Nick Leddy #2 of the New York Islanders (L) celebrates his goal at 10:59 of the third period along with h91#2 against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on October 14, 2014 in New York City. The Islanders defeated th
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The Islanders have been outshot 91-88 in these three games; at 5-on-5, the Islanders hold a 67-64 edge. But that has more to do with score effects than struggling against bad teams, as the Islanders have registered a 65.1 percent Fenwick close.

That's about as sustainable as a cheeseburger-based economy, but it's the kind of dominance a team wants to show against the league's weaker links.

It's not a reason to believe the Islanders are for real, but it's a reason not to question it.

And while the Islanders are vastly improved and a playoff contender, the last thing Capuano wants to see are bad habits creeping into his team's game, like they were when the Rangers outshot them 21-8 in the second period.

"We didn't play the Islander way," Capuano said. "We weren't getting pucks in…the whole game changed because of the puck management. It was a situation that hurt us last year quite a bit. We turned pucks over. … After the second period, we addressed it."

Within that period that may have broken a blood vessel in Capuano's forehead lies another reason why the Islanders are a playoff contender this season—improved goaltending.

Jaroslav Halak was inked to a four-year, $18 million contract this summer and earned a small percentage of it by stopping 20 of 21 shots in that second period. He will have to repeat that performance consistently to be worth that deal, but as a goaltender with a .918 save percentage, it seems like a better bet than the other goaltenders the Islanders had been icing in recent years.

Halak has a pedestrian .910 save percentage (two games, I know), but he's been at his best this season while games have been close. He allowed two goals in the final minutes of the Islanders' opener against the Hurricanes, turning a 5-1 win into a 5-3 win.

On Tuesday, Rick Nash scored with 2:10 remaining to make the final score 6-3.

That's three garbage-time goals that are muddying what has been a great two starts for Halak.

Not only are the Islanders in position to get great goaltending for the first time in about a decade, but the offense has also been downright terrifying.

The Islanders have 15 goals in three games; five have come on 12 power-play chances. Five players are tied for the league lead in points with seven, and two of them are Islanders—John Tavares and Brock Nelson.

The additions of Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin were expected to boost the Islanders offense, but no one had Nelson scoring at this rate, even if it's just only three games.

It's even surprising Nelson.

"It's a little bit surreal," Nelson said. "It just comes along with team success."

There was a thought—my thought, for sure—that even though the Islanders signed two new goaltenders (Chad Johnson), two new forwards and acquired Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy to improve a questionable defense corps, all those new faces could cause some early-season problems.

Veteran teams that return most of their players tend to need a few games to get on the same page, so it would be understandable if the new-look Islanders had a few hiccups in this regard.

It would be especially understandable considering the Islanders acquired Boychuck and Leddy after the exhibition season, meaning neither had any time to get acclimated with new teammates.

Yet Boychuk has been a point-producing rock on the back end with two goals and six points, while Leddy has played 19 minutes a night and scored his first goal Tuesday.

"A little bit," Boychuck said of times when he misreads what teammates are going to do, "but it seems to be going pretty good."

Undefeated. Scoring at will. Solid goaltending.

Through three games, yeah, it seems to be going pretty good for the Islanders.

All statistics via NHL.com or war-on-ice.com. Contract information via CapGeek.com.

Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @DaveLozo.