Heading into Game 5 between the New York Islanders and the Pittsburgh Penguins, it was anyone’s series. Both teams had their moments of dominance, leading to a tied series in a lot of categories. Now, with the Islanders leading the series going into Game 6 at Nassau Coliseum, we take a look at the storylines moving forward.
When Varlamov wasn’t available for Game 1 of the playoffs, Islander fans were understandably nervous. Sorokin had a great rookie campaign, but it was Varlamov’s net heading into the postseason. Sorokin played well in Game 1, giving the Islanders the early series lead, which was an enormous feat, considering their record on the road this season was less than desirable.
When Varlamov, and the team in front of him, played poorly in Games 2 and 3, head coach Barry Trotz turned to the rookie for Game 4. Much like last season’s playoff run, Trotz seemed to make the right decision. Sorokin shut out the Penguins in front of a raucous crowd at the Coliseum, helping the Islanders tie the series heading back to Pittsburgh.
Back in Pittsburgh, the Islanders managed to ride Sorokin’s spectacular, 48-save performance to win the game in double-overtime and take the series lead 3-2. This win helped solidify Sorokin as the starter for the foreseeable future. He’s shown he can be calm, cool, and collected so far in this series, a huge part of the reason they’ve been able to shut down Sidney Crosby and the Penguins’ other top stars.
This series with the Penguins has been up and down for the Islanders, shining a light on their inability to play a solid 60-minute game on a regular basis. They’ve even struggled to string shifts together, unable to put consistent pressure on the Penguins, and going long stretches without a shot on goal and chasing the puck around the ice.
Nick Leddy appears to be struggling, leading Trotz to break up the second pair, which includes Scott Mayfield, for a brief moment in the second period of Game 5. We haven’t seen Leddy “carry the mail” as we have during the regular season, and he has often been caught out on the ice for long stretches, leading to even more mistakes.
Mathew Barzal and Jordan Eberle have also been largely absent. The Penguins are doing a really good job of not giving Barzal any space to work with, much like the Islanders with Crosby, so there’s something to be said about how they’re respecting his skill. Eberle has had some good moments but only provides a flash in the pan offensive strike. Even with the Islanders’ lack of offensive prowess, Barzal and Eberle should be getting more chances than what we’re seeing.
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Kyle Palmieri, the Islanders’ trade deadline acquisition earlier this season, has also been quiet since Game 1. After scoring two goals to kick off the series, he’s been largely absent outside of a few good shifts. Much like the rest of the team, there’s no consistency from shift to shift in regard to the quality of play. Turnovers, sloppy passing, and a lack of tenacity — a calling-card for the Islanders and a huge reason for the success — have been their downfall throughout the 2020-21 season and the beginning of the playoffs.
The injury to Oliver Wahlstrom, which was somehow not a penalty to the amazement of the hockey world, is a huge blow to the Islanders if he’s unavailable for Game 6. He’s played well alongside Palmieri and J.G. Pageau and has been a staple on the power play since becoming an NHL regular. He scored his first playoff goal earlier in the series and added significant depth as a rookie throughout the season.
Luckily, the Islanders have a bit of depth they can turn to, depth with considerable experience that can play well with Palmieri and Pageau. The player seemingly first on the depth chart is veteran Travis Zajac. His history with Palmieri bodes well for that line, and in addition, he brings additional penalty-killing experience along with solid faceoff ability. That may mean you see Zajac in a “faceoff, get off” role with Barzal before having Leo Komarov jump back on the ice with his line, depending on the situation.
After Zajac, it’s likely Trotz favorite, Michael Dal Colle, getting a chance on the third line. While he’s struggled to collect points during his time with the New York Islanders, Dal Colle does play the style Trotz likes out of his forwards. As a dedicated forechecker, he could make some room out there for Palmieri and Pageau. Though it’s unlikely, especially if the Islanders make it to the second round to face the Boston Bruins, there’s a chance we see him get an opportunity to earn a spot if the team needs to mix things up.
The Islanders have a chance to close out the series at home on Wednesday evening. It would be the third time in as many seasons that the Islanders move beyond the first round of the playoffs, a feat not accomplished for this franchise since the 1980s.
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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.