Somewhere on PA Turnpike– Like any new job, there will be growing pains, and New York Islanders head coach Lane Lambert has undoubtedly gone through his during his first year as an NHL head coach.
Lambert’s first order of business following the Barry Trotz era was to establish more of an offensive system. But his defense suffered as he tried to get his team to create more chances.
Albeit a similar group that didn’t forget how to defend, he did have a new piece on the backend in Alexander Romanov and didn’t have a steady answer for the final defense spot.
Through the first half of the season, the Islanders were mediocre, not finding the consistent game needed to make noise in the Metropolitan Division, the toughest division in the league.
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But since the All-Star break, the Islanders have found that consistency, posting a 7-3-3 record.
While that record may reflect more on the players than the coach, he’s been able to keep the Islanders playing strong hockey without his creative forward Mathew Barzal, and his most versatile forward in Jean-Gabriel Pageau.
Even before those injuries, Lambert dealt with the losses of Kyle Palmieri, the team’s glue in Adam Pelech, an identity piece in Cal Clutterbuck, and a young sniper in Oliver Wahlstrom.
It was a lot of trial and error while those players remained out, and Lambert, through mistakes and failures, learned what works and what doesn’t.
And right now, he seems to be finding his stride at the most crucial time for the Islanders.
With each game seemingly a do-or-die game, standings-wise, Lambert has not shied away from limiting minutes.
Whether Lambert will admit it or not, he’s gone back to basics with his group with his key players out, something his team is rather familiar with.
The system hasn’t changed, per Lambert and his players, but he has his players playing a smarter brand of hockey, doing the “little things” which led to their success under Trotz.
He’s predominantly run three lines, but if there was ever a game to show just how far Lambert has come in a short amount of time, look no further than his coaching from Tuesday night in the 3-2 win over the Buffalo Sabres.
About halfway through the second, with the Islanders struggling to muster chances and at the time were trailing (if memory serves correctly), he swapped fourth-line winger Simon Holmstrom with the top-line winger and newcomer Pierre Engvall.
With the game tied at two early in the third period, Engvall was taken out of the rotation for the final 15:01 minutes of the game.
Shortening the bench has not been uncommon, but for a player playing on the top line to not see any ice when the likes of Otto Koivula and Josh Bailey were (credit to Bailey, who played quite well in the third), it was a bit of a head-scratcher.
But for the first time all season, Lambert explained precisely why he did what he did. There was no cliché answer.
“He’s new here. It’s a different adjustment,” Lambert said. “There’s an adjustment to systems and things like that. He’s fine. He’ll be fine.
“We went with guys that were a little bit more used to what we were doing and will continue to work with that, and Pierre will be fine.”
In the first period, knowing the importance of the outcome, Lambert barely played his fourth line, but as the game went on, he used them when need be, and in the third period, it paid off.
And that’s the growth people were waiting to see from Lambert.
By no means is he a finished product as an NHL coach because of one good stretch, but if there was ever a time for a coach to find his proverbial legs, Lane Lambert has done so at the right time.
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