The New York Islanders start the 2021-22 NHL season with a road game against the Carolina Hurricanes. The Hurricanes won 36 games last season, finished with the best record in the Central Division and moving back to the Metropolitan Division, look poised to be one of the best in the division this season.
The Islanders will be tested in this game and will have to limit a potent offense while also trying to find the back of the net against a defense that is great at eliminating opponents near the net.
Limit The Cross-Ice Passes
Sebastian Aho and Andrei Svechnikov, who signed an eight-year contract last season, are some of the best forwards in the game and often lead the top line for the Hurricanes and can create goals in the offensive zone and on the odd-man rush. Aho and Svechnikov are particularly effective at creating and capitalizing on the cross-ice passes where they catch the defense and goaltender out of position to find open shots on the net. With both skaters entering the primes of their careers, they both will likely take a big leap this season, and both give the Islanders a tough opening game with their speed and passing ability.
The Islanders defensemen have proven throughout last season that they can limit cross-ice and centering passes in the defensive zone and in the upcoming game, top-pairing defensemen Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock will have to lead the way with zone discipline and keeping up with the Hurricanes forwards. Furthermore, the Islanders defensemen will have to sacrifice direct shots on the net from the boards and the faceoff circle in order to prevent an open shot from the center of the ice. This will require goaltender Ilya Sorokin, who is expected to start in the opening game with Semyon Varlamov injured, to make a plethora of saves on quick shots directly on the net and the team must have confidence in the 26-year-old Sorokin in this game as a result.
Test Hurricanes Defensive Depth
The Hurricanes defense was one of the best in the NHL last season, allowing only 2.39 goals per game. However, the defensive unit lost arguably its best player in Dougie Hamilton to free agency as he signed a seven-year, $63 million deal with the New Jersey Devils. They also lost later pairing defenseman Jake Bean to the Columbus Blue Jackets. Moreover, the Hurricanes are replacing all three of their goaltenders from last season, with the front office allowing Petr Mrazek and James Reimer to leave in free agency while trading away Alex Nedeljovic to the Detroit Red Wings. The team retooled their defense as they brought in defensemen Ethan Bear, Ian Cole, and Tony Deangelo, while also acquiring goaltenders Frederick Anderson and Antti Raanta, but the new lineup will result in early-season struggles.
The Islanders have to take advantage of the Hurricanes’ new-look defense in the opening night game and the offense can find plenty of scoring opportunities. All four forward lines have to keep the puck in the offensive zone and find open shots on the net, especially against the back end of the Hurricanes defense. In a game like this one, the fourth line can create a great scoring opportunity with a strong forecheck from Casey Cizikas or Cal Clutterbuck, or similarly, Jean-Gabriel Pageau can create an opportunity in the offensive zone against a later defensive pairing.
Shots From The Point
Despite the turnover from the Hurricanes defense, the unit still looks to limit scoring chances in the offensive zone and goal-scoring opportunities will be hard to find as a result. The Islanders will have to earn their goals in the offensive zone and shot from the defensemen through traffic could help the team find goals throughout the game. Pulock, who signed an eight-year extension before the season started, can find a good shot from the point in this game and even if he doesn’t find the back of the net, the Islanders forwards can quickly find rebounds and easy opportunities near the net.
Moreover, one of the elements of the Islanders’ play that can help put the team over the top this season is strong play from the point which can open up the offense. The Islanders have arguably the best defensive unit in the NHL but don’t have a scoring defenseman and will be looking for someone to fill the void from Nick Leddy, who was traded to the Red Wings in the offseason. Seeing great shots on the net from the point will be promising for a team looking to gain an edge in the offensive zone.
Likewise, the Islanders have to be careful of the Hurricanes firing shots through traffic from the point. While Hamilton is no longer on the roster, Brady Skjei and Jaccob Slavin are two of the Hurricanes’ defensemen that thrive on shots from the point that the forwards can re-direct into the back of the net. The Islanders have to prepare for the shots and not only control the center of the ice in the offensive zone but block shots on the net to limit the opposing offense.
What Else Will The Islanders Need Against The Hurricanes?
The Islanders can find scoring chances with Mathew Barzal and Anders Lee creating opportunities in the offensive zone and take advantage of the Hurricanes defense that will play its first game without the veteran Hamilton. In addition, this is a game where winning in the neutral zone is going to be vital to each team’s success and defensemen Noah Dobson and Scott Mayfield can create turnovers at the blue line to set up scoring chances the other way for the Islanders. The opening night game looks to be a good one and both teams match up well with one another, leaving little room for error by either team.
Mike Fink joined The Hockey Writers in November 2020 and covers the New York Islanders. In addition to covering the Islanders, Fink has written for multiple sports blogs and platforms covering the NHL, NFL, MLB, and college sports. Follow Mike on Twitter @Finks_thoughts for more Islanders and general hockey insights.