If you watched the New York Islanders open their season on Thursday night against the New York Rangers, you may have thought it looked familiar. The Islanders looked like a team that went to the Eastern Conference Final a few months ago. They were composed, capitalized on their opportunities, and held the Rangers off the scoresheet in typical Islander fashion.
The script was flipped just two days later. With the same lineup, save for a last-minute goaltending change, the Islanders came out flatfooted. Instead of battening down the hatches to weather the Rangers’ shot at redemption, they let their foot off the gas, and the results showed (From ‘Rangers avenge opening loss in dominant win over Islanders,’ New York Post, 1/16/21).
Opening Night Success
The Islanders came out buzzing on Thursday. Everything clicked, from their five-on-five play to their special teams. The Islanders limited mistakes and Semyon Varlamov bailed them out when necessary. Varlamov may have had the most underrated night of all Islander players – he looked very calm and collected with no exaggerated movements, making saves look easy throughout the game.
The team’s top forwards also showed up, exemplified by Mathew Barzal’s highlight-reel goal, giving the outspoken Tony DeAngelo the ol’ inside-outside before roofing a shot past Igor Shestyorkin.
Youngsters Noah Dobson and Kieffer Bellows also had nice showings on Thursday evening. In over 20 minutes of ice time, Dobson made a couple of heads-up plays in the offensive zone and looked fairly comfortable in his own end, moving the puck cleanly to his forwards and not looking overwhelmed when the Rangers pressured. He added an assist on Anders Lee’s second goal of the game on a power play.
Bellows had himself a nice game as well. Though much of it would go under the radar, his eight hits showed his willingness to engage all over the ice. This type of play helped him draw a hooking penalty on Rangers’ rookie Alexis Lafreniere late in the second period, leading to the aforementioned power-play goal by Lee.
Even before the game even began, the Islanders were behind the eight ball. Varlamov took a puck up high from Cal Clutterbuck during warmups and went down in a heap. He went on to leave the ice, catapulting rookie Ilya Sorokin into his first game. Cory Schneider, whose contract was recently made official, dressed as the backup. Head coach Barry Trotz didn’t have an update in his postgame media availability on Saturday, but The Athletic’s Arthur Staple offered a bit of information on Sunday afternoon.
When the puck dropped for real, everything that went right in game one went wrong in game two. There were a lot of turnovers, bad penalties, and a rookie goalie showing the world he’ll need some time to adapt to the North American ice sheet during game action. Trotz didn’t blame the young goaltender, though, making it clear he thought his team didn’t play well in front of Sorokin.
And for the most part, Trotz isn’t wrong. While Sorokin will need to work on his angles on the narrower NHL ice surface, his teammates – and at times the referees – didn’t do him any favors. Barzal took two penalties early in the second period, contributing to the eight penalties the team took throughout the game. While the special teams unit killed off seven of eight, including Barzal’s minors, it still took valuable time away from the team’s top players to gain momentum in the offensive zone.
Turnovers and flubbed shots created odd-man-rushes the other way, allowing high-danger opportunities on Sorokin throughout the game. When the Islanders did have possession in the offensive zone, there was a noticeable lack of energy that made them so effective in Thursday’s game. The lack of quality chances in front of Alexandar Georgiev, who picked up his sixth win in eight games against the Islanders, gave him an easy game for his first victory of the young season. Trotz summed up the team’s effort simply yet sharply.
“The four goals are all stuff that we did,” Trotz said. “Turnovers, bad plays, poor execution. We were junk today.”
The Islanders will need to have a short memory as they get set to face the Boston Bruins on Monday evening, perhaps with Sorokin getting his second start in a row. The key to the Islanders’ success, dating back two seasons, is simplicity and consistency. They’ll need to find both if they want to stay in the mix in a tough Eastern Division.
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Jon Zella is a 30-year-old Long Island native currently living in Syracuse, NY. Outside of hockey, he enjoys motorcycles, beer, coffee, and his dog Olive.