The Islanders know that if they are going to advance to the second round, they are going to need contributions from all four forward lines.
Yesterday, it was the second and third lines which led the charge in the team’s 2-1 victory over the Panthers in game one of their best-of-five qualifier.
But those two units didn’t just lead the charge, they shined from the moment the puck dropped.
It started early with the third line putting the Isles on the board first. And who was the catalyst? Handsome Tom Kuhnhackl.
Just like in game one against the Pittsburgh Penguins last spring, Kuhnhackl’s heads up play and aggressive forecheck on Panthers d-man Cory Stillman created the turnover that led to the puck making its way along the boards to Brassard who then hit Pageau for the opening tally. He also made his presence felt at the other end of the ice, saving the game from being tied immediately after the Isles struck first by diving in front of the side of the net after Semyon Varlamov got caught behind the net.
How about the rest of that third unit though?
J.G. Pageau opens the scoring. What a play. pic.twitter.com/DEzP2eMS8a
— Rob Taub (@RTaub_) August 1, 2020
Brassard and Pageau, or the French Connection, looked like they had been on the same page for years. I mean that feed for that first marker was about as pitch-perfect you could ask for. Those two fed off each other all game long and created opportunities every time they stepped on the ice.
“It’s always fun to score a goal and to get on the board,” Pageau said of his opening goal. “It was a perfect pass by Derick, great forecheck, I thought that the whole team did a really great job tonight on the forecheck. We were really physical and keeping things simple.
Speaking of the 27-year-old from Ottawa, talk about living up to the expectations.
Not only did Pageau get the first goal of the game — and his 13th in 36 postseason games — but he was a monster in the faceoff circle. As IslesBlog’s and The Hockey Writers’ James Nichols pointed out, Pageau won an absurd 78% of the draws he took. That’s a massive improvement compared to what the Isles and head coach Barry Trotz were dealing with during the regular season, where that third-line center role was truly a missing link.
“Pager is able to elevate his game,” Trotz said after the game. “I think he feels a bigger part of it. The guys know what a good player he is, he’s smart, he’s quick, he always raises his game, he’s extremely competitive. That’s what we were looking for, we were looking for someone with a good hockey IQ and a high competitive level at center ice and he’s fit that bill.”
While Pageau took his game to another level yesterday, another fellow Frenchman followed suit — Anthony Beauvillier.
Beauvillier — who was on the second line with Brock Nelson and Josh Bailey — had his motor going the entire game. He got the eventual game-winner on the power play with an excellent one-timer that beat Sergei Bobrovsky to double the Isles’ lead in the second period. Defensively, Beauvillier also excelled, and so did his two linemates. Which as The Athletic’s Arthur Staple pointed out, they didn’t spend much time in their own zone.
That line was buzzing a majority of the day and could have had three or four goals too if not for the stellar goaltending of Bobrovsky. Nelson had a glorious chance to make it 3-0 late in the second but was stoned by a sliding Bob.
“The intensity is a little bit higher than an exhibition game,” Beauvillier acknowledged following the win. “That’s why we’re hockey players. We want to be in high-intensity, high-pace games. It was a fast pace, a heavy game.”
Playing that fast, heavy style will only continue to benefit the Isles if they intend on making this a short series.
Now it’s on to Tuesday for a pivotal game two with the Islanders having a chance to put themselves in the driver seat. And who knows, maybe the other two lines will find their rhythm which would really give the team another boost.
But yesterday it was the second and third lines who stood out and did most of the damage. They shined and got the job done.
A few other observations from the win:
-How about Adam Pelech getting physical? In the face of Florida’s top guns all game long. What he did to Mike Hoffman early in the game was a nice statement.
-Quiet games for the first and fourth line, but they were still effective when needed. The fourth line crashed and banged. It’s so easy to see how much more the Isles are in sync when they’ve got Cal Clutterbuck, Casey Cizikas and Matt Martin going.
-The power play finally coming through was exactly what the doctor ordered. They only had three power plays the whole game, but both units made those chances count. The Beauvillier goal resulted from some great puck movement.
-Semyon Varlamov came up big when he was needed. Varlamov didn’t have a ton of work all game — only facing 28 shots — but he made key saves and weathered that early storm by the Panthers in the third.
-Lastly, an exceptional response from the whole team after Florida did score quickly to start the third. They stifled any of the momentum the Panthers thought they had gotten and stuck to their structure.