The New York Islanders are just a few days away from their play-in series against the Florida Panthers.
This three-out-of-five series determines which of the two teams goes into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. In such a short series, everyone playing their best is a vital ingredient for success for both teams. While there are keys to the series like coaching, there are also some specific players that if they have a big series, should benefit the Islanders greatly.
Let’s start with the most obvious player. The star of the team, Mathew Barzal. The British Columbia native is far and away the most creative playmaker on the team and he is one of the best skaters in the league. No matter who his linemates are, he creates plays and sets up scoring opportunities.
One thing that’s noticeably clear is if Barzal scores, the Islanders have a much greater chance of winning. In the 2019-20 season, Barzal has at least one point in 27 of the Isles 35 wins. When the 23-year-old center has more than one point in a game, the Islanders have a record of 11-2-4. That comes out to a 64% chance to win the game before looking into anyone else’s impact on the game.
Barzal’s impact goes further than five-on-five, though. While it is a small sample size, the Islanders have won all four games that Barzal scored a power-play goal in. Again, it’s a small sample size, but it goes to show that when others help create plays that allow Barzal to be the scorer, it makes a difference. One of those games was against the Panthers. If Barzal can consistently put up points in the series, it could be smooth sailing for the Isles.
One of the forwards that can help Barzal along the way is Jean-Gabriel Pageau. The trade deadline acquisition had an immediate impact on the Islanders, scoring his first goal with the club in his first game which was against crosstown-rivals the New York Rangers. He followed that with a goal in his next game against the St. Louis Blues too. Pageau hasn’t won a game with the Islanders yet, but it’s not his fault. The team was slumping prior to and still after his arrival to New York. At the time of the COVID-19 pause, the Isles were on a seven-game losing streak (0-3-4).
Pageau’s impact was seen on a nightly basis though. He was a reason the Islanders’ power play moved the puck around well in the final games before the pause. Pageau has 26 goals and 16 assists this season for a total of 42 points. However, over the course of his career, the Ottawa native has more assists than goals (89 G – 95 A in 435 games).
So Pageau can be either the scorer or playmaker and his playmaking ability can drastically help the bottom-six forward group which is nearly void of scoring talent. It also presents an option if head coach Barry Trotz wants Pageau on the second line and Nelson on the third just to shake things up a bit.
If Pageau starts scoring or setting up easy goals for wingers such as Tom Kuhnhackl, Derick Brassard or others, the third line could finally have a scoring touch and the Isles would have three offensive lines to roll. In a series where the top line of each team is so significant, having depth scoring could be the deciding factor.
On the other side of the puck is someone the Islanders and their fans have missed greatly, Adam Pelech. In the middle of the season, he sustained an Achilles injury that was originally a season-ending injury. However, due to the COVID-19 pause, he has an opportunity to get back into the lineup.
Over the years with the Islanders, Pelech has developed into a strong, defense-first defenseman. This year it was more apparent than ever that he’s a vital piece to New York’s defense core. With the left-handed defenseman in the lineup, the Isles were 25-10-3 with a 2.52 team goals-against average (GAA). With Pelech not in the lineup, the Islanders’ record was 10-13-7 with a 3.23 team GAA. Some things are coincidental, and yes, the Islanders had a 20-game point streak in the first 38 games of the season, but when you look at the difference in team GAA, it’s clear this is not coincidental and Pelech plays an integral role.
The 25-year old defenseman has seen an increase in his average time on ice by almost a full three minutes this season. Prior to his injury, Pelech logged an average of 21:08 minutes of time on ice on the top line with Ryan Pulock. The pairing went up against the best the NHL had to offer including superstars like Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin and Connor McDavid.
Not only is Pelech a workhorse-defenseman, but he can also block shots. He had 110 blocked shots in the 2018-19 season and 142 in the 2017-18 season. This season, he had 83 blocked shots in just his 38 games. That’s 2.18 blocked shots per game and in an 82-game season and that would come out to 179 blocked shots.
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How can Pelech be a factor in the Panthers series? Florida gets a large majority of its offense from its top line and top power-play unit. With the likes of Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov and Evgenii Dadonov, the Isles top pairing will need to be sharp.
That trio is just as lethal as any other in the league and that doesn’t include Mike Hoffman and Noel Acciari as sneaky second-line scoring threats. Pelech can’t single-handedly take care of all five, but if he is on his best defensive game, it makes the job exponentially easier on the goalie.
Finally, no matter who plays in the net or if both alternate in the series, the goaltenders will need to be sharp. In a short series, every goal matters, especially the bad ones. Both Semyon Varlamov and Thomas Greiss had strong stretches in the season and both had times where their play wasn’t the best.
It is worth mentioning that the Islanders swept the season series against the Panthers and Greiss played two of three games and only gave up one goal in each game. In both of those games, the German netminder had more than 30 saves each time, including a diving stop in the final minutes of the game in Sunrise, Florida on Dec. 12, 2019. Varlamov also played well against the Panthers and held them to just two goals on 37 shots.
Statistically speaking, neither goalie really pulled ahead and became the Islanders’ true starting goalie. At the time of the pause, Varlamov had a .914 save percentage and a 2.62 GAA in 45 games while Greiss had a .913 save percentage and a 2.74 GAA in 31 games.
Going off strictly the season series, Greiss may be the better option because he allowed a total of two goals on 71 shots while Varlamov allowed two goals on 37 shots. In short, either option is solid and Trotz has said that he will give the job to the goalie who performs the best out of the mini-training camp that is coming to a close.
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While everyone being ready to play is a necessary ingredient for success in the short play-in series, there are some players that could be an x-factor. For the Islanders, Barzal and Pageau could play major roles in scoring while Pelech could stabilize the defense. Also, whoever Trotz picks to be the goaltender out of camp has to be solid. In a short series, you can’t afford to have a bad game. With the start of the series only a few days away, it will be interesting to see who comes ready to play and who doesn’t.