The New York Islanders and its fans caught a sigh of relief with the team victorious Monday night. The last few weeks have been up and down in terms of play, but the Isles still seem destined to clinch their ticket for the postseason soon. Of course, a few things will have to go their way before the playoffs are a guarantee.
Until the end of the season, our Rob Taub every Thursday will give his observations on what has stood out to him. All observations come from the perspective of things that happened in previous games, weeks, or have been a season-long trend.
1. Mathew Barzal needs to get going again. Since John Tavares’ departure, the bulk of carrying the offense has fallen on the reigning Calder winner’s shoulders. Barzal seemed to be handling that responsibility just fine during the middle months of this season. That elevation in play resulted in his first All-Star Game appearance in San Jose. Returning from Northern California — and predating tonight’s game against Montreal — Barzal has contributed minimally in the second half. The sophomore center has just ten points in his last 20 games and hasn’t scored a goal since February 16. Maybe it’s not shooting enough or trying to do too much on his own, but the production and consistency for Barzal have faded from his game in the last month and a half. The excuse can even be made that he had extra Tom Kuhnhackl on his wing, a player that is not on the same caliber in terms of skill. But Barzal is supposed to make the guys around him better.
With the Islanders offense is having difficulty scoring (as said below), Barzal must find a new level these next few weeks. That playoff berth is not sealed yet for his team. Hopefully the opponents the Isles will be faced with the next few weeks will provide more than enough chances for Barzal to regain his scoring touch.
2. The offense as a whole is still struggling. Moving away from Barzal, the rest of the troops behind him haven’t done themselves any favors. Take away the empty net goal from the win against Columbus and the Isles have scored just one goal three times in their last five games. The chances have been there for guys like Anthony Beauvillier, Josh Bailey, Brock Nelson, etc., but all have yet to find ways to finish consistently. The Islanders are lucky that its bottom-six and defensemen have picked up the slack while the top forwards are in head coach Barry Trotz’ words “fighting it”. But relying on your grinders and blue line for goals every night isn’t going to cut it against the Pittsburghs, Columbus’ and Bostons of the world in the playoffs. Trotz, since he implemented his structure back in training camp, said he values quality instead of quantity when it comes to shots. That’s fine if a team is in the opposition’s zone for a good amount of time. Right now, the Isles are not doing that and hesitating too much to shoot.
If they want to have any success come playoff time, the offense needs to get out of their funk and make smarter decisions with the puck.
3. Teams have seemed to figure out the Islanders. Ever since the Islanders went on that Western Canada trip, certain things have crept into their game that can be deemed red flags. Regression, PDO, whatever word tickles your fancy, teams know that pressuring the Isles D or forwards in their own zone is how to beat them. While I believe the decisions and without the puck — in addition some brutal defensive breakdowns — are what have been the team’s problems the past few weeks, they have regressed in a manner that some thought was going to be what was the norm all season long. All those mistakes seemed to also make the team look soft, incredibly tight on their sticks and almost scared in a sense. There’s a difference between playing not to lose and playing to win. The last dozen games, it feels like it’s been the former rather than the latter.
Maybe the win over the Blue Jackets reverts the Islanders back to playing to win in the last two months prior. Many should hope it does or the nailbiting way the team has played will only continue until the season concludes. Nobody wants that.
4. For the Isles to win, the fourth line needs to grind. What a difference just one line can make on a team’s overall performance. Monday night, the Islanders fourth line — back together for the first time since the 6-1 against Toronto — went to work early in the first period. Their fast, physical mentality resulted in the game-winning goal credited to d-man Ryan Pulock. But even that one shift symbolizes that this team is not whole without it’s “identity line”. A lot of the team overachieving this year can be contributed to the success of the fourth line. Casey Cizikas has 19 goals. 19! Cal Clutterbuck and Matt Martin have been reinvigorated and are on pace for career-highs in points. Trotz said it himself to Arthur Staple of The Athletic about how vital that line is.
“Whatever they’ve got, they’ve got. In every sport, there are combinations or whatever, when they’re not together they don’t have the same chemistry. This was the first time in a few games they were back, and they were impactful.”
— Eyes on Isles (@eyesonislesFS) March 11, 2019
5. Ryan Pulock trending towards top-tier status. It’s become almost commonplace to talk about how much better Pulock continues to get each game. Scoring the game-winner on Monday with his blistering slapper only underlines how he’s resurrected his season from an offensive standpoint. The Dauphin, MB native for the first half of this year couldn’t find a way to put the puck in the net despite plenty of opportunities. But once he had that two-goal night in that 4-3 OT victory over Colorado, something turned. And following that night, Pulock has been sensational. Almost a repeat of his stellar second half last season, Pulock’s ascended to becoming the Isles best defenseman.
Already setting a career-best in points with 33, the right-shooting d-man is on pace for the first 40-point campaign as a pro. Defensively, Pulock is evolving and showing more signs that he’s ready to become that true number-one defenseman for the next several years.
6. Adam Pelech not getting enough credit. Hard to believe for the first three months of the season, Pelech sort of became IslesTwitter’s new whipping boy for his mistakes and inconsistent play. But he deserves major props for keeping his head up and fighting his way back up the depth chart. The 24-year-old — 16 points in 65 games — has really stepped it up following the four times he was healthy scratch between October and January. Pelech looks calmer with and without the puck, and, looks like he’s found nice chemistry playing left of Pulock on defense. It’s not to say Pelech recent strong play has gotten very little fanfare, but Trotz could have easily swapped him for Thomas Hickey when he returned from injury. Instead, he kept him in there. That proves that Pelech is doing the right things.
7. Lou and Barry understand power play frustration. Always the topic that seems to come up daily with the Isles. But the head coach and even the general manager understand the angst from the fans about why the power play has failed. In a Q&A with Season-Ticket Holders on Tuesday, they both joked that they hear the boos and the players do as well when they can’t get the power play going. So yes, you’re not the only ones who start hollering when the team looks discombobulated on the man-advantage. There is a simple remedy to stop the frustration though: SHOOTING THE PUCK!
8. The team needs to wear down the opponents as they did earlier this season. This one could go hand and hand one of the points above — number three to be exact. But it’s almost been a month now since the Islanders as a team were just not letting the opposition room to move. That problem can translate to the offenses struggle as well. Before the last three weeks or so, the Islanders offense was coming in waves. Now, they’re coming in spurts, and sometimes very few I might add. The same premise can go for the defense. Put the soft coverage in the rearview mirror and go back to being aggressive.
9. Health is essential. More than in almost any other year, I can’t remember when the Islanders were this lucky in a year when it came to injuries. Last year they lost Johnny Boychuk, Andrew Ladd, Scott Mayfield, Calvin de Haan all for a significant amount of time. It basically derailed the season. This season has been different. Granted they lost Thomas Hickey and Andrew Ladd for a number of months, but they’ve had healthy bodies to insert in their place to make sure the team didn’t take a step back. Even with the recent setback for Robin Lehner, he only missed three games before returning from what was most likely a concussion. But that just shows the depth the organization now has built up and how fortunate the team has been since the beginning of the year.
Together again. 🤜🤛 pic.twitter.com/BgYMUEvf9d
— New York Islanders (@NYIslanders) March 13, 2019
10. Petition or not, Belmont is still going to happen. I applaud the fans for getting behind the petition to support the Belmont Arena. My feeling — even now with the team sending out emails for to get more signatures — is that the project is going to come to fruition despite all the naysayers and public outcry. Some still don’t get the fact that the STATE OF NEW YORK is behind this project. Do people realize how much political power the entire redevelopment of the area has behind it? C’mon now. Sooner rather than later, that shovel will be in the ground. It doesn’t matter what happened with Amazon. It doesn’t matter what a group of ten people have against the project. It doesn’t even matter that the team is asking for support. That building will be built and it will be everything Isles fans could dream of.