The New York Islanders’ recent game might have been a preview of what the next few weeks will look like, specifically as they play without top-line forward Mathew Barzal. The Islanders entered the game against the Pittsburgh Penguins with the news that he wouldn’t be in the lineup for the next few weeks and possibly longer with a lower-body injury. Losing a top-six player at this point in the season can be the final blow to a team fighting for playoff position and hoping to remain competitive in the Eastern Conference, making the game against the Penguins at first look like a grim preview of how the rest of the season would play out.
The injury didn’t seem to matter as the Islanders beat the Penguins 4-2 in a dramatic come-from-behind victory. The Islanders played great and with two third-period goals, stole the game against their Metropolitan Division rival to leap over them in the standings and jump back into a wild card spot in the Eastern Conference.
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The win against the Penguins had massive implications. The Islanders have beaten them in all three meetings this season including a 5-1 win on Dec. 27 and a 5-4 victory on Feb. 17. The three wins secure the season series against the Penguins, giving the Islanders the tie-breaker which could be the difference between them making and missing the playoffs. Moreover, the recent win showed how the Islanders can make the playoffs and be a great team without Barzal.
Islanders Have a New Top Line
Along with the Barzal injury, the Islanders were without Jean-Gabriel Pageau, forcing head coach Lane Lambert to shuffle up the lines. Against the Penguins, he moved Anders Lee and Simon Holmstrom to the top line to play alongside Bo Horvat. While both skaters lack the playmaking ability that Barzal provides, they both complement Horvat’s skillset. Lee is an instinctive goal scorer who finishes scoring chances near the net while Holmstrom is a fast skater that brings a much-needed youth presence to the offense.
The line change paid off and more importantly give the Islanders a top line for the upcoming games. The three skaters played a big role in the comeback win, scoring two of the team’s three goals and constantly applying pressure in the offensive zone. Moreover, Lee scored the game-winner because of his linemates, specifically, Horvat creating open ice in the offensive zone that allowed him to find the puck near the net. The Islanders’ new-look top line will not overwhelm opponents but has proven it can carry the team if needed.
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Islanders Fight & Fight Back
There’s no other way to describe the end of the second period other than it was absolute chaos. There were scrums and fights between all the skaters on the ice, including Ross Johnston taking on multiple Penguins at once, Evgeni Malkin throwing punches at multiple Islanders, and the referees scrambling to sort everything out. The conclusion was for every skater on the ice to be penalized with Johnston and Jason Zucker being sent to the locker room, while the other skaters crowded both penalty boxes.
The fights to close out the second period didn’t fuel the comeback but gave the Islanders energy heading into the third period. When they returned, the Islanders battled back and scored two unanswered goals to come away with a 4-2 victory. Fights are often a psychological part of the game and they used the chaos as motivation to come back. The Penguins, on the other hand, let the game slip away and couldn’t recover after the scrums. The fights didn’t immediately affect the game but it was a turning point and arguably a defining point in the season for both teams.
Nelson’s Big Night
Brock Nelson started the scoring for the Islanders and capped off the night with a big goal as well. His first goal particularly displayed his intelligence and shooting ability as he carried the puck on the rush and created a shooting lane by looking for the cross-ice pass while preparing his shot. With goaltender Tristan Jarry anticipating a pass, Nelson fired the puck past his pad and into the back of the net for the second period goal that put the Islanders on the score sheet.
To cap off the night, Nelson scored the dagger, shooting the puck into an empty net after multiple Penguins shots were blocked. The goal was his second of the night but also had greater implications for the Metropolitan Division and the Eastern Conference. When he scored, the air was taken out of PPG Paints Arena and a feeling of doom set in for the Penguins, who suddenly don’t look like a playoff team. The Islanders meanwhile look like they can still contend and the empty net goal was the exclamation point.
The two goals give Nelson 26 on the season. After a 37-goal season in 2021-22, it was unclear if he would be able to top his career year and remain an elite goal scorer in the Islanders’ offense. Through 60 games, he is on pace for another remarkable season where he looks to lead the Islanders back to the playoffs in the process.
Horvat’s Shot Flips Momentum
The Islanders acquired Horvat with the hopes that he could be a star center and elevate the offense when necessary. With Barzal out of the lineup, he not only did just that but showed how his shot can change a game. Horvat didn’t have a great angle or a shooting lane but found an opening that Jarry provided, slipping the puck to the back of the net with his shot.
The goal tied the game and gave the Islanders all the momentum in the third period. Ultimately his goal, along with his great play on the following shift, allowed the Islanders to win the game and leap back into playoff position. Horvat has 35 goals on the season and his career year is keeping the Islanders in playoff contention. Moreover, even with Barzal out of the lineup, there’s still hope that this team will play well on the offensive end of the ice, particularly with Horvat stepping up and playing at a high level.
Sorokin’s Remarkable Night in the Net
The recent game was one where Ilya Sorokin carried the Islanders to a victory. He saved 44 of the 46 shots he faced, including some of his best saves of the season. Late in the second period, before the chaos ensued, Jake Guentzel looked poised to find the back of the net but Sorokin managed to get his paddle on the puck and make the save. The save prevented the Penguins from taking a two-goal lead and allowed the Islanders to eventually come back with two goals in the third period.
A 44-save performance would typically be a statement for any goaltender. However, for Sorokin, it’s just another great game and something fans have been accustomed to this year. He saved 46 shots in the 1-0 shootout loss to the Colorado Avalanche on Dec. 19 and put together a 49-save shutout on Nov. 23 against the Edmonton Oilers which was arguably his best goaltending performance of the season. The recent game was nothing extraordinary for Sorokin, making his performance this season even more impressive.
The Islanders have been carried by Sorokin all season, who gives the team a chance to win every time he starts. While they have often let him down, tonight’s game saw how he can be the centerpiece of a playoff team. Sorokin was superb and looked like a Vezina Trophy-caliber goaltender. The rest of the roster stepped up and as a result, they managed to come away with a victory against a talented opponent.
Other Takeaways From the Islanders’ Win
- The penalty kill stepped up and played a pivotal role in the recent victory. While the Islanders allowed a goal in the second period, the unit killed off three of the Penguins’ opportunities to keep the game close. Additionally, it stepped up without Pageau, one of the team’s best penalty-killing forwards. Instead, Horvat took on the role with 5:30 ice time in the game while the team was shorthanded.
- While he didn’t register a point, Arnaud Durandeau had a great debut. He’s a smaller skater but provided a spark to the forward unit and constantly battled for the puck in the offensive zone. His speed and offensive zone presence indicate that it’s only a matter of time before he becomes a regular in the offense.
- Zach Parise had two assists in the game, bringing his point total to 24 on the season, sixth most on the team. He might be the oldest skater on the Islanders but he continues to be a valuable part of the offense.
What’s Next for the Islanders
The Islanders will return to UBS Arena to face the Winnipeg Jets, who wrap up their New York road trip with the upcoming game. The Jets have a 35-21-1 record and are coming off a decisive 4-1 victory over the New York Rangers, making them a tough test for the Islanders, to say the least.
The recent game was not only a sigh of relief for the Islanders, a team coming off a tough 6-2 defeat to the Boston Bruins, but also it was a spark of optimism. While they won’t have Barzal in the lineup for the upcoming weeks and will miss his scoring presence, they have a strong chance of making the playoffs without him. The win against the Penguins showed that the Islanders’ depth and overall roster can still defeat most if not all opponents and will make the upcoming week interesting as a result.