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Five for Five: Back on Track

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New for the 2019-20 season for Isles Blog, our Rob Taub each Monday will give you his thoughts on five important things to key on for that week’s games for the New York Islanders.

After going an incredible 15-0-2 run in 17 games, it wasn’t a shock that the Islanders hit a bit of a wall last week. An 0-2-1 road trip that featured defeats at the hands of the lowly Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings left a lot to be desired. But it seems like head coach Barry Trotz’s stern message got through to his team as they righted the ship with a sound shutout win Saturday night over the Columbus Blue Jackets in Brooklyn.

Captain Anders Lee finally got off the snide, scoring his first goal since November 1st; the goal being the proverbial game-winner. Mathew Barzal added the insurance tally with a beautiful move on a breakaway that beat the Jackets’ goaltender, Elvis Merlikins. He became the first Islander to reach ten goals this season. And the combination of Semyon Varlamov and Thomas Greiss — Greiss left the game early — pitched the team’s first combined shutout in over 20 years, the last being Tommy Salo and Wade Flaherty.

“We lost three in a row for us before this game, so it was important to come in our building and play a good game,” Varlamov said after the victory Saturday night. “We did a lot of good things today. We played a very solid hockey game.”

Aside from fighting for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division — the Caps continue to keep that seat warm — the Isles find themselves in great shape as they enter the month of December. They sit fifth in the NHL in points, have a +13 goal differential, and are near 100% health. Still, this week provides a huge opportunity, one that shouldn’t be taken for granted as they did when they headed out West.

Here are the five things to eye on this week:

Beating the bad teams.

Last week should have been a teaching lesson for why the Isles should not play down to their competition. They got burned for it and can’t let it happen again, especially their back-to-back with Detroit and Montreal these next two games. The Wings have just SEVEN wins in 29 games and are abysmal on home ice. The Habs are reeling right now having gone winless in their last nine games. Trotz and Co., even in a back-to-back situation, need to stomp on both these teams early and often. Not coming away with all four points or anything less than three would be looked at as a major disappointment.

The best in the West come calling.

It’s been a while since the Islanders faced a top-tier team from the West. You have to go back to their third game of the year where they were bludgeoned 5-2 by this year’s most surprising outfit, the Edmonton Oilers. This week, the Isles welcome the Vegas Golden Knights to the Coliseum for the first time Thursday night. Vegas is on the outside looking in at the moment, but they’re as dangerous as any team. Two nights later, they head down to the Lone Star state to play the blazing Dallas Stars. The Stars have shaken off a rough start to the year and are 7-2-1 in their last ten games. Dallas is always a tough place for the Isles in recent years and this time shouldn’t be any different.

Otto Koivula seeing more ice time.

Through five games, the results have been meh for the 2016-first rounder. But Saturday night, Koivula seemed to play with a little more edge to his game. His effort earned him his most ice time since being called up — 9:39. Against two lower opponents like Detroit and Montreal, might it be time to see what Koivula is really capable of? As Newsday’s Andrew Gross pointed out this morning, Koivula could see some shifts with Jordan Eberle and his regular linemate, Leo Komarov. That slight change could possibly allow the 6-4 big man to show more of his offensive skill.

Getting Eberle on the scoresheet.

The frustration has reached a boiling point for both Eberle and the fans. And after watching Lee finally get the monkey off his back, even though he had already scored five already this year, Eberle remains the lone soul that has yet to score a goal. The chances have been there for Eberle too, who has six shots in his last three games. Has puck-luck not been on his side? It’s debatable. But it’s now the third month of the season and he’s yet to get that elusive first one. The faith isn’t starting to wear with Eberle, but he’s got to get one before it starts to affect his confidence and his overall play.

The offense producing again.

In the Isles’ last four games, they’ve totaled four goals — 1, 0, 1, 2. Before that, they were scoring three or more goals a game at will. You can argue that those low numbers might be cause for concern. The second line had carried most of the load recently, but they’ve also hit a dry spell.

For the Isles to be successful, they need all four lines rolling. Their opponents this week — Montreal and Detroit are 1-2 as the worst teams in goals against per game, Vegas in the middle of the pack of that category — could be the remedy to have them “get right” in some sort.

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