Islanders Semifinal Report Card – Pulock, Barzal & Varlamov Lead the Way

The New York Islanders lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Semifinal series in seven games. The series itself went back and forth, with both teams taking the momentum of the series with each passing game. The Islanders proved in the matchup how far they had come from the 2020 Eastern Conference Final, losing the final game by only one goal. Unfortunately, the offense could not beat Andrei Vasilevskiy and the Lightning defense throughout the series, culminating in the Game 7 shutout and the Semifinal defeat. The grades reflect a team that limited a potent offense with excellent defense but also struggled on the offensive end of the ice, with some shift specifically looking hapless in the series altogether.

Ryan Pulock A+

The Islanders defensemen played great throughout the series, but Ryan Pulock was head and shoulders above everyone on the unit, with the best series of any skater on the team. Pulock was great in every zone in the series, taking shots from the point, cutting off angles in the neutral zone, and creating turnovers in the defensive zone all against one of the best offenses in the NHL.

Ryan Pulock New York Islanders
Ryan Pulock scored the second goal in the 2-1 Game 1 win and also had the game-winning blocked shot to end Game 4. Ryan Pulock, New York Islanders (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Pulock opened up the series with a goal on a quick slap shot from the point for his fourth goal of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the most of all defensemen on the Islanders. The goal itself gave the team a 2-1 Game 1 victory but the play of the series for Pulock was one of his 12 blocked shots which gave the Islanders a 3-2 game 4 victory. In the final seconds of Game 4, Ryan McDonough fired a shot that looked poised to find the back of the net, but the 26-year-old defenseman calmly anticipated the puck’s trajectory and blocked the shot to save the game. While the game-winning play stands out in the series, the overall play from the top pairing defensemen throughout the Semifinal allowed the Islanders to play a competitive series against the Lightning and nearly pull the upset.

Mathew Barzal A

The offense struggled throughout the series, but Mathew Barzal continued to find the back of the net and be a force in the offensive zone for the Islanders. He scored three goals and totaled five points for the offense, with his speed taking over multiple games as he outskated the Lightning defense or would draw defensemen to open up the ice for the shift. The Islanders often relied on his playmaking ability considering how the team struggled against a Lightning defense that forced tough shots on the net and allowed few chances for the offense to score.

Mathew Barzal New York Islanders
Mathew Barzal created scoring chances with his speed and instincts, scoring three goals in the Semifinal series. Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The opening goal of the series was possible in large part because of Barzal’s ability to catch the Lightning in the midst of a change, receiving the puck at the blue line and out skating the opponent to slide the puck past Vasilevskiy. The game, however, that he stood out in was Game 6 when he assisted both of the Islanders’ goals in regulation, helping the team overcome a 2-0 deficit and ultimately win the game in overtime.

The two assists spoke to the 24-year-old scorer’s ability to open up the defense, whether it was powering through the defense on an odd-man rush to subsequently drop the puck at center ice for an open skater or circle around the net to distract the opponent and allow for an open shot near the net. The playoff run as a whole was a showcase for the top scorer, leading the Islanders in points with 14 and allowing the entire line to benefit from his ability on the offensive end of the ice.

Semyon Varlamov A

Throughout the Semifinal, the games became goaltending duos, with goals being a rare commodity. While Vasilevskiy was dominant in the series, Semyon Varlamov remained calm and kept the Islanders in the series despite receiving 30 more shots than his opponent. Game 5 was one to forget for Varlamov, where he allowed three goals on 16 shots and was pulled in the first period by head coach Barry Trotz in the 8-0 defeat.

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Otherwise, the series was a masterclass on goaltending as the Lightning couldn’t score off the 33-year-old goaltender, as he denied multiple opportunities when the defense would allow easy shots on the goal with some great saves in the process. In the playoffs altogether, the Islanders starting goaltender posted a 2.56 goals-against average (GAA), helping the team reach their second consecutive Semifinal as a result.

Adam Pelech A

Like Pulock, Adam Pelech was great defensively throughout the Semifinal series, especially on the defensive end of the ice. While Pelech struggled at times clearing the puck out of the defensive zone following a turnover, resulting in a few consequential goals, the 26-year-old defensemen cut off angles to the net throughout the series, created turnovers in both the defensive and neutral zone, and cut off passing lanes against the puck movement of the Lightning forwards. The top pairing defensemen also added three assists in the series and helped lead a pivotal penalty kill in the third period of Game 6 that helped the Islanders win the game and force a Game 7.

Anthony Beauvillier A-

The Game 6 overtime winning goal will be one that Islanders fans will remember for years to come as it closed out Nassau Coliseum on a high note and forced a Game 7. The play itself was a quick forecheck from Anthony Beauvillier followed by quick snipe to the shot shelf, which the Lightning goaltender had little reaction time for. Other than the goal itself, he wasn’t a major factor for an offense that struggled, only adding one assist in the rest of the series. However, the forward was able to help create an offensive zone presence throughout the series with speed on the wings to help carry the puck into the offensive zone and fire quick shots on the net, with 17 shots in the Semifinal series. The 13 points in the playoffs were tied for second-most on the Islanders and the future looks bright with the 24-year-old forward playing a pivotal role in the offense moving forward.

Scott Mayfield A-

Scott Mayfield was one of the defensemen that stepped up against the Lightning and helped limit one of the top offenses throughout the series. He was paired with different defensemen throughout the series, a display of the Islanders versatility at the position, and allowed the coaching staff to find matchups and situations to take advantage of the ability of the veteran defenseman, most notably when he was paired with Pelech on the penalty kill to help clear the puck out of the defensive zone and limit the Lightning puck movement.

Scott Mayfield New York Islanders
Scott Mayfield, New York Islanders (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Mayfield only scored one goal in the series, the game-tying goal in Game 6 as he was the recipient of a great Barzal pass, but the impact of 28-year-old defenseman was felt in his defensive play. He blocked 14 shots in the series and led the team with 50 blocked shots in the playoff altogether, as he eliminated scoring chances for the Lightning offense and created turnovers in the process. The Islanders relied on their defensive pairing throughout the season and the unit kept them in the series and the versatility of their 28-year-old defenseman gave the team an edge in the close games.

Jordan Eberle B

Jordan Eberle has flashes where he could create a scoring opportunity or benefit from Barzal’s playmaking ability which helped him score the Islanders’ first goal in Game 6. Unfortunately, the 31-year-old veteran scorer, along with the entire offense, failed to generate offense for most of the Semifinal, scoring only three points despite playing on the top line. He could have played a significant role in this series with the Lightning defense allowing the Islanders to play off the wings, where he thrives the most, but the 15 shots failed to find the back of the net for an offense that needed to be effective to win the series. In the regular season, the offense received 16 goals from their veteran forward, but the playoffs saw opposing defenses eliminate his scoring instincts, causing the top line to struggle.

Nick Leddy B

Like the entire defensive unit, Nick Leddy had a strong series. The play from the point, unfortunately, was nonexistent, a part of the veteran defenseman’s skillset that benefitted the Islanders throughout the regular season, leading the team with 29 assists and but distributing only one assist in the Semifinal. Leddy, however, was great defensively against the Lightning, most notably when the Islanders would transition from a turnover. The 29-year-old defenseman, paired often with Mayfield, helped create turnovers at the blue lines or in the defensive zone and immediately set up the offense as he led the rushes into the offensive zone.

Andy Greene – Noah Dobson B

The pairing of Noah Dobson and Andy Greene looked like it would be the weak link in the Islanders’ defense, allowing the Lightning offense to find easy scoring opportunities against the vulnerable pairing. However, the duo continued to play great defense as they had the entire season with Dobson’s speed and two-way ability and Greene’s veteran presence combining for a great duo, blocking shots on the net and collecting the puck before the Lightning forwards could establish their offensive zone presence.

Noah Dobson New York Islanders
Noah Dobson led all defensemen with seven assists in the playoffs but failed to register a point the entire Semifinal series. Noah Dobson, New York Islanders (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Dobson struggled at the point in the series, distributing seven assists in the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs but failing to record a point the entire series and Greene struggled offensively throughout the playoffs. The duo primarily helped seal up the backend of their defensive unit and keep most of the games in the series low-scoring and ultimately gave the Islanders a chance to advance to the Stanley Cup Final. At 21-years-old, Dobson still has plenty of years left to help the team compete in the playoffs, but Greene at 38-years-old might have played his final series in the NHL, making the loss a tough one for a veteran that was a few plays away from the Cup.

Brock Nelson – Josh Bailey B

After a great First Round against the Pittsburgh Penguins, where Brock Nelson and Josh Bailey combined for six goals and a Second Round with the duo combining for five goals against the Boston Bruins, the forwards both hit a wall against the Lightning and their defensive depth. Nelson and Bailey combined for two goals in the series and the line that helped provide scoring depth in the Islanders playoff run was suddenly non-existent. The duo particularly struggled to create an offensive zone presence with the Lightning defensemen forcing the forwards into difficult angles while removing the skaters from the puck with hard hits along the boards. Moreover, the duo combined for 21 shots on the net in the series, but with the shots coming from difficult angles, the saves were made by their opponent’s world-class goaltender.

Casey Cizikas – Cal Clutterbuck – Matt Martin C+

The “Identity Line” continued to play great defensively, pressuring the Lightning with the forecheck and creating turnovers on many of their shifts. Unfortunately, the later line continued to play poorly offensively and the Islanders failed to find goals from the backend of their forwards unit. The shift set the tone early on in the series, with hard hits along the boards following the puck being sent into the offensive zone, but the line couldn’t create many scoring opportunities following the turnover.

Matt Martin New York Islanders
Matt Martin, New York Islanders (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Game 4 was the highlight for the later forward line as they played excellent defense throughout the game and also helped the Islanders offensively with low shots off Vasilevskiy that created second-chance shots. Cal Clutterbuck had two assists in the game and Matt Martin collected a rebound in the center of the ice to score the third goal in a 3-2 victory. The Islanders knew what they would receive from their veteran shift but the Lightning adjusted as the series progressed and was prepared for the style of play of the “Identity Line.”

Jean-Gabriel Pageau – Kyle Palmieri – Travis Zajac C

If there was any shift that the Islanders couldn’t afford to see fall off, it was the one led by center Jean-Gabriel Pageau. All three skaters on the shift failed to find the back of the net the entirety of the series and looked hapless in the offensive zone against the Lightning defense. The Islanders relied heavily on the duo of Pageau and Kyle Palmieri in the first two rounds, with a combined 10 goals coming from the forward depth. Still, when the later line failed to create offensively, the entire forwards unit fell apart. The team gave the Lightning a competitive series, but the scoring depth was non-existent and the later line was part of the cause for the dropoff in scoring.

Leo Komarov C-

One of the lingering questions from the series is why Leo Komarov continues to play the top line along with Barzal and Eberle. Since Anders Lee went on long-term injured reserve with a torn ACL, the top line wasn’t the same, but the solution for Trotz was to slide the 34-year-old Komarov on the shift. In the Semifinal, the veteran forward failed to score or add an assist and, aside from a strong forecheck, added little to the offense, making many fans wonder why Oliver Wahlstrom, a younger but more talented forward, never played in the series instead of the struggling forward. It’s unclear whether the forward, who played poorly for most of the season, will be part of the Islanders’ future. Still, the recent series didn’t help the cause, especially for the team that will likely address some offensive needs following the Semifinal loss.

Where the Islanders Go From Here

The Islanders enter an offseason with many questions and questions about how they want to look moving forward. The Semifinal series reminded the front office that there are some underlying weaknesses that need to be addressed, with scoring depth at the top of the list. The Islanders are a few pieces away from winning a Stanley Cup Championship, as the series against the Lightning showed, but the team is pressed against the salary cap and, with many pending free agents, won’t have the same roster flexibility as other teams. Lou Lamoriello, who won the Jim Gregory General Manager of the Year award, will have a tough task this offseason to improve an already great roster but the Semifinal series only proved that this team is on the doorstep of the Stanley Cup Final and isn’t far from winning their first Cup since the 1982-83 NHL season.

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