After today’s 2-1 victory in Game 1, there is one thing that is apparent: this New York Islanders team is different than last year’s.
Sure, the Isles actually won game one as opposed to suffering a horrid loss like in the Edmonton Bubble, but this team dominated in tonight’s win, something we did not really see last year. The blue and orange led the shots category for much of the game, had all nine of the rush chances and even caught Tampa Bay flat-footed for a couple of breakaways, including a breakaway goal from Mathew Barzal.
Mat Barzal gets the scoring going in the #StanleyCup Semifinals!
— NHL (@NHL) June 13, 2021
While the third line was blanked in Game 1, the JG Pageau line was the difference-maker and will continue to be moving forward for the Islanders. At one point in the conference final last season, the Isles iced a line of Michael Dal Colle, Leo Komarov, and Derrick Brassard when Barry Trotz threw lines in a blender. With Komarov at center, it was horrible hockey to watch. This time around, the Islanders can actually roll four distinct lines that can all provide offense. This is critical against a team in the Lightning that has three really strong defensive pairs, anchored by Victor Hedman, Ryan McDonagh, and Mikhail Sergachev. Despite Sergachev’s rough Game 1, he is a young stud with so much talent. For the blue and orange to be able to match a line like the Brock Nelson line or Pageau one against a slightly “lesser” third defensive pairing that is still one of the better pairs in the NHL, it takes so much pressure off of Barzal who might face the Hedman pair.
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Looking back at the third line for the Islanders, it saw 8:31 of time on ice, which was tied for the team lead. In that time, the Islanders had five of the eight shots, an expected goals percentage of 56.94, and the only high danger scoring chance, according to Natural Stat Trick. While it is a small sample size, the impact this line had is immense. Perhaps the best part about the line is the way it plays, the Islander way. Pageau is a brilliant two-way center, while Travis Zajac can defend with the best of them.
“That’s what we have to do [play our game]. It doesn’t matter who we play against,” head coach Barry Trotz told the media after game one. “We know who we are, we got to play the way we have to. It was good from our confidence side that we can get to our game and have success, but we know that, so it’s not a revelation or a big surprise. Guys were dialed in … and we got it done.”
If the Islanders manage to hold on and beat the Lightning, it will be because of their depth. While one may call the Pageau line the third line, it acts like the first. The line all postseason long has contributed offensively, with an expected goals per 60 of 2.35. For comparison, Barzal’s line has a rate of 2.09. The Pageau line does all that while facing the top lines of the opposition, including the Boston Bruins’ top line and presumably the Nikita Kucherov line for the Lightning once head coach Barry Trotz gets the last change at home.
This Islanders team is different from the last. All four lines can score, all four can defend and all four have enough speed to skate with the Lightning. This is not something we could say about the 2019-20 bubble team that was always a step slower. While it is just one game into the series and the Lightning will surely come out much stronger in game two, the Isles were able to dictate play against Tampa Bay and that is not something that many teams can say this year.
Follow Matt on Twitter @MattWatling99