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Taub’s 10 Thoughts: The Push is On

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The New York Islanders resume their push for their first postseason appearance starting tomorrow night against the Tampa Bay Lightning. It feels like it’s been forever since the Isles played a game, even though it’s only been nine days. Still, it’s imperative they come flying out of the gates when the puck drops to set the tone for what hopefully will be a repeat of their unbelievable first half.

A lot of things have been very noticeable under the new regime of g.m. Lou Lamoriello and head coach Barry Trotz, as well as just the overall direction the franchise is heading. Each week through the end of this season, our Rob Taub will key in on what has stood all year long from recent games, weeks, or season long trends.

  1. Mathew Barzal is already a superstar. The Kid Who Won the Calder is already on the cusp of elite status, but his performance in last weekend’s NHL All-Star Game just proves what everyone knows: Barzal is a star. While the game is basically pond hockey, Barzal notching six points was a showcase of just how good he’s going to become. Getting praise from the best in the game like Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang ain’t a bad thing either. “3-on-3, I mean, I don’t know if there’s anyone better at holding on to the puck. I think watching him out there with the best, I don’t see anyone that beats him in that category,” were Crosby’s words about the 21-year old.

December and January were Barzal’s most prolific months of the season. That should only continue as he and the team look to reach the playoffs for the first time in three years. But by the look of what he did in San Jose, there seems to be no limit on Barzal turning into one of this generations’ great NHL-ers.

2. Nick Leddy’s turnaround has gone unnoticed. While all the hoopla about the Isles defense has seemed to revolve around Johnny Boychuk, Scott Mayfield and Devon Toews, Nick Leddy has made major strides quietly in the first portion of the season. Coming off a season from hell a year ago — a league-worst -42 and left for dead in Doug Weight’s defense-less system — Leddy has been quite solid from the outset. His offensive production has taken a hit due to head coach Barry Trotz’s system (18 points in 49 games), but defensively Leddy is averaging over 21 minutes of ice time and looks more comfortable than he has in two years. And even though plus-minus people say is a meaningless stat, Leddy at this juncture of the season is a +3. That number might not mean anything by seasons’ end, but Leddy’s success so far does have a direct correlation to the team’s season at this point.

3. Anthony Beauvillier and Ryan Pulock are both in need of big second halves. Both these two youngsters took the second of half of the Isles season last year by storm. Pulock emerged as the team’s top defender, while Beauvillier — after being sent down to Bridgeport before the new year to rediscover his confidence — went on to score 17 of his 21 goals down the stretch.

Now they seem to be in the same predicament as the Islanders resume their season after the break. Beau and Pulock have had so-so campaigns so far, with them showing those big spurts that they displayed last season here and there. As the games only take on another level now, the Islanders are going to lean on Beauvillier to provide more on offense. As for Pulock, it’s all about confidence. His two-way play doesn’t need to be tweaked. It’s him hitting the net with his booming shot consistently that will be a crucial factor for the team to continue their strong play.

4. The Adam Pelech dilemma. Ah, IslesTwitter’s favorite whipping boy. Sorry Josh Bailey, but Pelech has taken that rightful place both positively and negatively.

Pelech at times this year has been solid. Other times, he’s been awful. That’s why it makes it hard to pinpoint what Pelech exactly is and where he fits. He’s been better in the team’s recent hot stretch, but it’s sustaining it that will keep the coaching staff up at night. With Thomas Hickey close to returning, Pelech does have the odd man out label above him. But what if he does continue to play well and the team continues to win? That remains to be seen.

But Pelech’s status could be an advantage and disadvantage at the same time.

5. Anders Lee hasn’t played his best yet this season. That’s not a knock at the Isles captain. But in my eyes, Lee’s first half could be a mere blip of what he’s capable of as the season reaches its critical stages. Considering he’s scored 74 goals the last two seasons — and has 18 through 49 contests at the moment– Lee’s goal scoring prowess hasn’t gone above the normal rate. Yes the Isles have more scoring balance than a year ago, but scoring 30 again isn’t out of the realm of possibility for the 28-year old. Overall, Lee’s offensive game as whole does need a bit of an uptick. With 33 games in 65 days too, Lee is going to be depended on to take his first half and translate it into a monster end to the season.

6. What else is up Michael Dal Colle’s sleeve? Now officially back with the team after his appearance in the AHL All-Star Classic, it will be interesting to see what else Dal Colle is going to show determining how much longer he sticks with the big club. Even with just two points in 13 games, the 22-year old rookie has shown considerable progression in his development. Trotz has been well aware of it too and is ecstatic.

“Every time he’s come up to the NHL, he’s looked more comfortable,” Trotz said to Newsday’s Andrew Gross before the break. “I have a good trust in his game. His wall play and the pace of his game has increased since training camp. He looks like a confident young man.”

Confidence indeed. But there’s no doubt the Woodbridge, ON native can bring more. Despite the fact he’s playing on a line with two heavy defensive-minded forwards — Valtteri Filppula and Leo Komarov — Dal Colle does have an offensive upside to him. He showed it before getting the call with 28 points in 29 games for Bridgeport. Maybe that production finally comes to fruition in the stretch run for Dal Colle, which would solidify his role for the team in the near future.

7. How many 20-goal scorers you say? When the Islanders season concluded last April, they had five 20-plus goal scorers to show for a poor season. Through 49 games this year, they’ve got eight scorers in double digits. It’s not to say that they can’t have the same amount, but some players will need to have monster second halves for that to happen. Lee (18) is a lock to hit 20 sooner than later. Barzal (14) and Brock Nelson (16) should also eclipse 20 before the year is over. Beauvillier (12), Josh Bailey, Jordan Eberle and Casey Cizikas (11 each) are all long shots to hit the plateau. Take Cizikas out of that group — 11 goals for a fourth liner is a great feat on its own. But if the Islanders are searching for more offense as the intensity of the games increases, those three showed they can start scoring at a consistent rate.

8. A definitive number one in net. Seeing how the Thomas Greiss-Robin Lehner duo has fared so far, Trotz might have a good problem on hand. The second half of an NHL season is a whole other animal, and  where the Islanders stand right now — first place in the Metropolitan Division —  they might need reassurance soon about who is top dog between the pipes. Both definitely deserve the nod. Greiss has been a revelation after an unmitigated disaster of a season in 2017-18. Lehner is writing the greatest comeback story in the NHL and has played Vezina-worthy for a majority of the year.

This conundrum facing the Isles could be decided soon. But if both keep pushing each other, it will only make the decision that much harder.

9. This weekend’s back-to-back could be telling of how the second half will go. This story has been written before. Watch a majority of the teams that have played so far out of the long layoff; some have come out flying, some have come out rusty. The Isles getting right back at it against a juggernaut Tampa team — that looked asleep at the wheel in a 4-2 loss to the Penguins — and the lowly Kings within a 24-hour stretch is the best possible thing. There will be no time to slouch for Trotz’s crew and the results will definitely tell a story. Winning both games would set the tone for the weeks to come, while losing will have some feeling a little nervous.

*Having both games at the Coliseum is a huge equalizer too. They need to take advantage of it.

10. What’s Lou to do? No one knew the Islanders would be where they are as the second half begins. G.M. Lou Lamoriello has admitted that on numerous occasions. But now the ball is in his court. Go out and get a big fish because you believe your team has a chance at a deep run? Add a piece without selling your future? Stand pat? The options are all on the table, yes even superstar Artemi Panarin. But here’s how would go about it: Don’t do anything crazy unless the opportunity really presents itself.

And always, always keep team chemistry and the standings in mind.

 

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