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Islanders need to realize full potential after up-and-down start to season

When the Islanders return from Christmas break Tuesday night, they’ll need to do so with an increased sense of urgency.

A lackluster December has all but erased a good start to the season, and the Isles entered the holiday break two points below the playoff cutline — a place they cannot afford to be when the music stops in mid-April. General manager Lou Lamoriello changed the coach after the team failed to make the playoffs last season. If they can’t make it again this year, it’ll be time to reevaluate the players.

The Islanders have flashed a lot of potential, especially as they won seven of eight games from Oct. 26 through Nov. 8, and thanks to Ilya Sorokin and Semyon Varlamov, they have what might be the league’s best goaltending tandem. But the injury bug has hit hard in the last couple weeks with Varlamov, Casey Cizikas, Cal Clutterbuck, Kyle Palmieri, Adam Pelech, Brock Nelson and Simon Holmstrom all suffering maladies over the last few weeks. Their last game before the break, a 5-1 win against the Panthers, was a reminder of what the Islanders can be at their best.

“I thought we played north,” coach Lane Lambert said afterward — a descriptor he hasn’t been able to use in a while.

There’s still a long way to go before we can make a judgment on this Islanders season, but here’s 12 of the moments that jump out from the first 35 games.

Best Goal

Josh Bailey scoring the game-winning goal on Oct. 28 in Carolina, in his 1,000th game sticks out as a special moment and one of the more skilled goals you’ll see from the 33-year-old Bailey. He held the puck on his backhand for just long enough off a feed from Mathew Barzal and roofed it to give the Isles a 3-2 lead in an eventual 6-2 victory.

Best Assist

Oliver Wahlstrom hanging onto the puck with Brett Kulak all over him and seeing a darting Sebastian Aho from behind the net to give the Isles a 3-0 lead over Edmonton on Nov. 23 was a truly impressive play by the 22-year-old, and one that showed real development from him as well. It’s hard to see Wahlstrom making that play a year ago, when he had just 11 assists. This season, he’s already up to nine.

Best Quote

A few conversations from the last few months stick out — namely speaking with Mathew Barzal on the potential addition of Patrick Kane and with Zach Parise on the work-life balance he’s still trying to find. But as far as individual quotes, it will be easy at the end of the season to look back at this from Lou Lamoriello on Aug. 22: “We would have made drastic changes last year if we didn’t feel good about the group we have and what we’re capable of doing. I say that with comfortability. I say that with confidence. I’m looking forward to getting back at it and maybe proving everybody wrong.”

Wort Loss

Letting the Coyotes turn around a 2-0 deficit to win 5-4 at Mullett Arena on Dec. 16 was a brutal loss that featured a second period that was one of the worst 20 minutes the Islanders have played all season. It was also a pivotal two points to let slip through their fingers during a recent run of poor form.

Turning Point

Right now, Nov. 29 is the date to have circled on the calendar. That’s when the Islanders failed to take advantage of an early five-on-three goal and lost 3-1 on the road to the Flyers. At the time, it dropped them to 15-9-0, but the Islanders have won just four games since then, and are thus below the playoff cutline at the holiday break.

Surprise

Zach Parise has already almost equaled his scoring output over 82 games last season, with 11 goals in 35 games to start the year. Usually playing alongside Jean-Gabriel Pageau on the third line, Parise always seems to be doing the right things, and he’s contributed minutes on both special teams units as well. He may be 38 years old, but he might just get to 25 goals this season if things keep going right.

Disappointment

The lack of scoring from the wing in general is a problem that needs fixing. Parise and Anders Lee are the only two wingers on the team that have reached double-digit goals with Anthony Beauvillier, Oliver Wahlstrom and Josh Bailey in particular lagging behind. (Kyle Palmieri, who has essentially missed a month’s worth of games with injuries, gets a pass here). It looked going into the season like that was the biggest hole on the roster, and now it looks like the biggest need for Lou Lamoriello to address going into the trade deadline.

Coaching Decision That Worked

Inserting Sebastian Aho for Robin Salo after a lackluster first four games for the Finn has paid dividends. It was easy to look at Aho as a lost cause after six seasons of failing to secure a spot in the lineup, but his decision-making has been much improved in the defensive zone and he’s turned into a reliably solid player on the back end.

Coaching Decision That Flopped

In retrospect, Nikita Soshnikov having a roster spot for as long as he did, and being in the lineup on opening night, sticks out as odd. The Islanders ended up releasing Soshnikov on Dec. 19, as he went back to Russia in order to play with the Traktor Chelyabinsk in the KHL.

Developing Story

Aatu Räty scored in his NHL debut once he got in the lineup in the final game before the break. Can he grab hold of a spot — and if so, who makes way once the Islanders get healthy?

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