Islanders Weekly is my series that looks at the performance and outlook of the New York Islanders. Every Thursday, we will take a look at the week that was for the Islanders, highlighting key players and trends while looking at the road ahead.
Related: Last Week’s Islanders Weekly
The Islanders finished off the 2020-21 regular season with two home meetings with the New Jersey Devils, followed by a trip to Boston to face the Bruins before starting the playoffs. Thursday’s meeting with the already eliminated Devils didn’t go according to plan, as New Jersey was able to find a late second-period goal from Michael McLeod to build a lead they wouldn’t give up, winning this one 2-1. New York came back Saturday to face the same Devils but looked like a different team that knew how important the points at stake were so late in the season.
The Isles put up five goals on Mackenzie Blackwood, but what might be more important is the players who were able to find the back of the net. Brock Nelson scored twice to end a nine-game goalless drought, while Kyle Palmieri ended a run of 13 straight contests without a goal. Nelson’s two-goal game gave him a season-long total of 18 to pace the team, with point-leader Mathew Barzal adding to his total with a goal and an assist in the 5-1 win. The Isles looked to take the momentum from this win into Boston, where they needed to win in regulation to have a chance to become the third seed in the East.
New York couldn’t have started the crucial final game of the regular season much worse; after the first period, Boston was leading 1-0 on the scoreboard while outshooting New York 18-4. Only a goal behind, the Isles found a way to tie the game at one goal apiece, and then again at 2-2 – head coach Barry Trotz pulled the goalie with the game tied in regulation, to no avail, sending the contest to overtime. By the time the puck dropped in overtime, the East Division playoff matchups were set, with the Isles set to take on the Pittsburgh Penguins while Boston will face the Washington Capitals.
Varlamov Goes Down
Islanders fans held their collective breath as the team broadcast opened the third period of Monday’s game with a replay of Semyon Varlamov slowly leaving the ice with an apparent injury. Ilya Sorokin entered the game for the third and kept the Bruins off the board for the rest of regulation, but the more pressing concern for Isles fans was ensuring the health and availability of the team’s workhorse goalie for the upcoming playoffs. Varlamov has been stellar this regular season, positioning himself well to be a Vezina Trophy finalist, and was crucial in the team’s bubble run a season ago.
Trotz didn’t seem concerned about his top goalie’s availability for the Penguins series after he didn’t take the ice for Wednesday’s practice. New York rolled with Sorokin and veteran Cory Schneider in the net at practice, rolling their regular forward lines and defensive pairs while they wait for a definite schedule for their first-round series. An extra day or two would allow Varlamov to make sure he is in top form to face an always-dangerous Pens offense.
Special Teams Strengths
After starting the season unusually strong on the power play, the Isles’ work with the extra man returned to normal levels over the rest of the regular season and they even began to struggle down the stretch. However, over the last two games of the regular season, the power-play operated at 50%, including going 1-for-1 against the Bruins. Oliver Wahlstrom seems to have found his role as the shooter on the unit, with his rebound leading to a Nelson goal against the Devils and his ability to record a goal himself against the Bruins.
The team’s penalty kill might be even more impressive than the power-play, all but securing a top-10 kill percentage in the NHL after not finishing in the top-12 since the 2016-17 season. New York’s 83.7% penalty kill is the team’s best since the 2015-16 season when their shorthanded unit converted at 84.5%. In addition to being structured against the opposing power-play, New York was able to score shorthanded four times and was the only NHL team to avoid allowing a shorthanded goal from the opposition.
Round 1 Preview
The Islanders will face the Penguins for the first time since the end of March and only the third time since the end of February. The Pens had the upper hand in the season series, winning six of the matchups, but both teams look different than they did at the time of the last meeting. Pittsburgh is enjoying much more stable goaltending after presumed starter Tristan Jarry struggled mightily to open the season. The Pens also got much healthier, capped off by the return of Evgeni Malkin last week after the dynamic center only managed to play in 33 regular-season games.
New York is hoping that their trade deadline additions are enough to make an impact against a Penguins team they have struggled against at times this season. Despite sweeping them in the first round in 2019, this year’s Pens team looked like a different monster that New York was not prepared for at times. Consistent production from the Isles’ third line, including newcomer Kyle Palmieri, paired with reliable goaltending and playing to coach Trotz’s structure, could be a recipe for success for the Isles against one of their fiercest rivals.
Top Performers and the Week Ahead
- Anthony Beauvillier: 1 goal, 2 assists
- Brock Nelson: 2 goals, 1 assist
- Mathew Barzal: 2 goals, 2 assists
The Week Ahead
- Round 1, Game 1: at Pittsburgh Penguins, TBD
- Round 1, Game 2: at Pittsburgh Penguins, TBD