The New York Islanders won Game 4 with a 4-1 victory over the Boston Bruins to even the series at 2-2. Granted, the final two goals were scored on an empty net, making the final result more deceiving than the way the game itself played out. However, the win was pivotal in a series that is now guaranteed to have at least six games. Moreover, the important element to note from the recent game, as well as Game 3 for that matter, is how the Islanders were able to limit the Bruins’ offense, a unit that scored eight goals in the first two games but has only found the back of the net three times in the recent two games. Considering the only goal scored in Game 4 was on a power play, the defense has turned a corner quickly in only a few games and has been able to essentially eliminate one of the best offenses in the NHL.
The Defensive Pairings Have Stepped Up
The Islanders’ defensive pairings have led the way all season, helping the team allow only 2.23 goals per game. The unit helped lead the first round upset over the Penguins as they were able to limit the speed of Sidney Crosby and Bryan Rust, making it difficult for their offense to establish any rhythm, and the Bruins were going to require a different set of adjustments to keep the Islanders in the series. Unlike the Penguins, the Bruins are best in the offensive zone where they can find open skaters near the net by creating passing lanes and taking advantage of their skilled forwards, especially on the top line.
In the second round, the Islanders’ defensemen have been able to cut off passing lanes with disciplined zone play and awareness of where the Bruins’ forwards are on the ice at all times. Additionally, the defensemen have continued to block shots in this series, with Andy Greene blocking six shots in Game 3, forcing their opponent to execute extra passes to find better shots on the net. Aside from the great play in the defensive zone, the Islanders’ defensive unit has played great in the offensive zone, limiting turnovers and firing strong shots on the net, allowing for better offensive play as well as easier transition to defense when turnovers occur, which has also helped the defensive play in the neutral zone, as the defensive pairings are able to cut off angles on odd-man rushes.
The Forwards Are Helping Out
The noticeable difference in the defensively play, especially in the Game 4 victory, has been the play that the forwards have given the team on the defensive end of the ice. The fourth line, or “Identity Line,” has been known for its ability to play great defense with a great forecheck and backcheck as well as hard hits along the boards, removing opponents from the puck. This series has been no exception, with Casey Cizikas, Cal Clutterbuck, and Matt Martin constantly creating turnovers against the Bruins’ forwards, which was prominent in the final minutes of Game 4 when Clutterbuck hit Brad Marchand to create a turnover and set up a Cizikas empty-net goal.
What has stood out is the entire unit impacting the recent games with great play in the defensive zone. Even the top line, known for its offensive impact, has seen Mathew Barzal, who scored the go-ahead goal in Game 4, willing to get himself in front of the net or attempt to create a turnover. Likewise, Jean-Gabriel Pageau has been an ideal center for playoff games like these, as he has been able to patrol the middle of the ice and help out the defense against a great Bruins offense. That’s led to his line helping impact the defensive end of the ice for the Islanders, in addition to the offensive end, as Pageau has a team-leading 10 points in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Varlamov Has Been Phenomenal
It’s hard not to look at the recent success and ignore the incredible play of Semyon Varlamov, who has faced 112 shots in the three second-round starts and only allowed six goals. Granted, the veteran goaltender has allowed the first goal in all three games of the Bruins series, as well as all five starts in the 2020-21 Stanley Cup Playoffs, forcing the Islanders into slow starts in multiple playoff games. Likewise, the overtime goal that was squandered in Game 3 was a shot that shouldn’t have found the back of the net but only did in large part to Varlamov exposing the top corner of the goal. However, the recent performances have kept the Islanders in the series and have kept the games low-scoring in the process.
The Game 4 victory might be the best of the Stanley Cup Playoffs thus far, as Varlamov saved 28 of 29 shots in the 4-1 victory, with the only goal coming on a Bruins power play as part of a chaotic sequence. However, both Game 2 and Game 3 were games where the defense wasn’t able to keep the Bruins’ offense in check, as they constantly fired shots on the net. Yet, Varlamov kept the team in both games with 39 saves in each start, including leading the team to a Game 2 overtime victory. The Islanders needed great performances from their goaltenders, with the Bruins’ offense finding open shots on the net and breakaway chances on odd-man rushes, which is exactly what they have received in the series in the recent games.
How the Islanders Must Prepare for the Upcoming Games
The second-round series has essentially become a best-of-three game, with the series tied through four games. It’s still up for grabs with both teams gaining and losing momentum throughout each game itself and constantly adjusting to their opponents. The Islanders have to continue playing great defense, with the Bruins being more than capable of piling on the goals at any point. But the Islanders will also have to start finding goals where there otherwise wouldn’t be, as the offense has struggled at times in the playoffs. The Bruins are likely going to apply more pressure on the forecheck when the puck is in the defensive zone, and the ability to avoid surrendering easy scoring opportunities will be crucial in determining the upcoming games.
Mike Fink joined The Hockey Writers in November 2020 and covers the New York Islanders. In addition to covering the Islanders, Fink writes about the NHL at large and contributes as a weekly guest to The Hockey Writers Podcast. Follow Mike on Twitter @Finks_thoughts for more Islanders and general hockey insights.