With just 11 games left in the regular season, the New York Islanders are in the first wild-card spot with 80 points. They are just one point ahead of the Florida Panthers and two points in front of the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Islanders have found their groove recently, playing their best hockey of the season. They are 8-3-1 in their last 12 games and are getting contributions across the lineup. They finished their west coast trip winning two out of three, which helped keep them in a playoff spot.
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Even with the injury to Mat Barzal, the Islanders are getting enough offense to win games. According to Islanders statistician Eric Hornick, they have outscored the opposition 21-6 over the last 14 third periods. Tuesday night’s contest will be one of the biggest games of the season when the Toronto Maple Leafs visit UBS Arena.
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The Maple Leafs are one of the league’s best and were one of the busiest teams at the 2023 NHL Trade Deadline. They made major moves to upgrade their roster and are a legitimate Stanley Cup threat. This is a true test for the Islanders because most of their recent wins came against non-playoff teams. They need to prove that they can beat top teams if they want to be considered a true contender in the playoff race.
Islanders’ Keys to Success
One of the most important keys to success is getting elite goaltending. Ilya Sorokin has had an outstanding season, ranked in the top five in both goals-against average (GAA) and save percentage (SV%). If not for Linus Ullmark and the Boston Bruins’ historic season, Sorokin would be one of the leading candidates for the Vezina Trophy. He gives the team a chance to win every night and can steal games when the offense struggles. The Islanders will need Sorokin to bring his A-game on Tuesday against the Maple Leafs’ high-power offense.
The Islanders must also find their offense. Not only are the Maple Leafs in the top tier for goals scored, but they are also top five in goals allowed. They have played really strong defensively this season and added a few more defenders at the deadline, such as Jake McCabe and Luke Schenn. General manager (GM) Kyle Dubas went all-in to make a run this season, and this game will be a major test for the Islanders’ defense.
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The Islanders’ scoring came alive on the west coast trip. The second line of Kyle Palmieri, Brock Nelson, and Pierre Engvall played exceptionally well, combining for eight points against the Anaheim Ducks, and Palmieri contributed another goal Saturday against the San Jose Sharks. The newly acquired Engvall has been a welcome addition to the team, with three goals and two assists in just seven games, and he has developed good chemistry with Nelson and Palmieri.
“I think we had some good chemistry,” said Engvall. “We were finding each other pretty good. I try to use my speed. I think it worked really well. It was a nice game” (from “Islanders avoid frustration, get a boost from newcomer Pierre Engvall,” The Athletic, 3/16/23). Engvall continues to improve each game and is giving the offense the boost they desperately need. He will face his former club tonight.
Islanders’ Power-Play Struggles
The one issue the Islanders can’t seem to figure out is the power play. They were one-for-five on Saturday and have really struggled to get much of anything going since Barzal’s injury. Noah Dobson quarterbacks the power play, and he has not scored a goal since Feb. 24 against the L.A. Kings. According to Hornick, they are 16-10-3 when they score at least one power-play goal and 20-17-5 when they do not.
The Isles rank 30th in the league right now and there doesn’t seem to be a solution. Bo Horvat’s production has also slowed since Barzal’s injury, which is also affecting the power-play unit. The unit seems to hang on the perimeter and doesn’t get many scoring opportunities. They have to find a way to create more space and chances because special teams are crucial come playoff time. This is one of the biggest matchups of the season for the Islanders, and it should be a packed house. The Islanders need to come out with a jump and find a way to get two crucial points at UBS Arena.