The New York Islanders are on a six-game winning streak and look like the best team in the MassMutual East Division, with 16 wins in the first 26 games. After a 2-1 shootout victory against the Boston Bruins, the Islanders will host the New Jersey Devils for a three-game series. It’s easy to think that the Devils aren’t going to give much of a challenge as they have only won one game in the season series thus far (of the three total games). The big thing is that the team can’t afford to play down to the second-worst team in their division. After sweeping the Buffalo Sabres last week in a three-game series, there are some important elements that head coach Barry Trotz and the coaching staff should keep in mind for the upcoming games.
Don’t Get Caught Napping on Rushes
The Devils’ offense isn’t good, scoring only 2.5 goals per game. In particular, the team has struggled to find production from skaters they expected to take big steps this season, like Jack Hughes, who only has five goals on the season. Skaters like Hughes on their offense have primarily found their scoring on odd-man rushes where the 19-year-old, in particular, can use his speed to his advantage. The important thing for the Islanders in this series is to make sure they don’t allow the Devils to allow their young skaters space off turnovers, particularly at the blue lines. The defense has been great all season, and the expectation is for that to continue if the Islanders can eliminate the odd-man rushes, the series can easily become more one-sided than it already is.
Take Advantage of the Devils Defense on the Backend
The Islanders have shown this season that not only do they have a great top line of goal-scorers, with Mathew Barzal, Anders Lee, and Jordan Eberle combining for 30 goals, but the depth is making its mark. Brock Nelson leads a potent second line with 10 goals, and Jean-Gabriel Pageau is leading the third line with nine goals and eight assists. The Islanders can not only pile on the goals but can find offense from any of their forward lines.
The Devils have a struggling team across the board, and the element that the Islanders can take advantage of the most is the struggles on the backend of their opponent’s defense. The Devils defense has struggled this season, particularly in their later pairings. While Ty Smith and Damon Severson have played well together, PK Subban has turned into a liability defensively and has transitioned into a defenseman that only thrives in particular situations (from the point offensively and on the power play), and the overall play of the defense has been a disappointment for another season.
It almost seems like a given at this point that the Islanders need to start Ilya Sorokin more often, not only to integrate him into the NHL play but to also give Semyon Varlamov more nights off to avoid overworking him. Sorokin started two of the three games against the Sabres and only allowed two goals in both starts, making it reasonable to assume that the 25-year-old goaltender is going to get at least another start against a struggling team like the Devils.
Sorokin struggled at first, allowing five goals in his NHL debut and 11 goals in the first three starts. Since then, the backup goalie has turned a corner and been able to provide much-needed depth at the goalie position for this condensed season. With a pair of shutouts and only four goals allowed in the last four starts, it’s clear that the Islanders should give Sorokin more starts. The Devils are a prime team to allow a star goalie like Varlamov a night off while also continuing to determine what the goaltending situation looks like for a hopeful Stanley Cup run.
What Else Should the Islanders Try to Take Advantage of?
The Devils are the type of team that can allow the Trotz and the Islanders to look forward, meaning try out different elements of their game to see what can work in the important stretch that will be later in the season. This series can allow the younger skaters like Oliver Wahlstrom and Kieffer Bellows more ice time or see how they play on different lines. In the end, the main thing in this series is that the team doesn’t play down to the Devils and possibly trips up in a game or two, but considering how the Islanders have played against the “bottom-feeders” (a 10-2 record against the New York Rangers, Devils, and Sabres this season) that will likely not become a worry over the weekend.