Denizens of the East Division: it may be time to get a little worried about the New York Islanders. Never an easy opponent to defeat during the tenure of coach Barry Trotz, the Isles are heating up as we get into the meat of the 2020-21 schedule. New York has won three games in a row and now sits second behind Boston (a team they have already beaten twice) in the division, but perhaps the best signal for Islanders fans is how the newest players are doing.
Ilya Sorokin, for example, just earned his first NHL victory - a 20-save shutout of the Buffalo Sabres - and getting the Russian rookie on track is going to be key for New York as the league heads into the grind of an unusually unpredictable schedule already littered with back-to-backs and series of games against the same opponent.
Trotz acknowledged that one of the team's luxuries during his time has been a 1-2 punch in net, having two of either Robin Lehner, Thomas Greiss or Semyon Varlamov. While Varlamov is still the starter, Sorokin came in this year as a highly-touted rookie from the KHL. The 25-year-old's credentials are highlighted by a Gagarin Cup championship with CSKA Moscow in 2019, where he was named playoff MVP and led the league in shutouts (both in the regular season and playoffs).
But the win over the Sabres was his first in the NHL after opening his career with three losses - despite Sorokin playing well.
"He deserved it," said center Jean-Gabriel Pageau. "He's been very good every game he has played for us - but we haven't in front of him. He made huge saves when we needed it. We're all pumped for him."
For Sorokin, getting the first win is obviously a positive, but he has been keeping an even keel during the first month of the season.
"I don't think about pressure," he said. "I think about my game in the moment - what I can do, what I can control. It's all about what I think before and during the game."
With Varlamov playing excellent hockey as the starter, Sorokin has been able to find his game early in New York and if that trend continues, the Islanders will once again have that luxury of two netminders who can spell each other in the crease in order to keep everyone fresh come playoff time. But Sorokin isn't the only new recruit making noise on Long Island.
Defenseman Noah Dobson is in his second pro season with the Islanders and has already tied his rookie mark of seven points in 15 games after suiting up in 34 contests last season. Dobson, drafted 12th overall by New York in 2018, has been one of the more exciting Isles prospects in recent years, winning back-to-back Memorial Cups (first with Acadie-Bathurst, then with Rouyn-Noranda) and displaying the excellent mobility and offensive arsenal that modern NHL defensemen need.
Though he did get experience last year, he's playing more consistently now and getting a lot of confidence in the process.
"I've felt better with each game," Dobson said. "Learning how to play in these tight games - especially the past few, which have been playoff-style games - you have to make the right plays, the simple plays. And when you get opportunities to get up in the play, you have to make sure it's the right time and that's when you create your offense."
Dobson's excellent pass to a driving Anders Lee resulted in New York's first goal in the Buffalo win and having a player with that skill set on the back end takes some of the sting out of losing Devon Toews in the off-season.
Naturally, the first job for the Islanders right now is to make sure they're primed for a playoff spot, because you can't be tough to play against in the post-season if you're not invited to the dance. Having said that, Trotz likes what he is seeing from his squad right now and given how adept New York has been at playing a heavy forechecking style, you probably don't want your team facing them in the playoffs.
With Matt Barzal leading the offensive charge and a sturdy group who play simple and don't gamble, the Isles are a hard out. But if Sorokin and Dobson can continue to make positive contributions as the season goes on, New York is going to be even harder to get past.