The New York Islanders held off the Anaheim Ducks in the final minutes to seal a 4-3 victory and cap off a strong six-game homestand on Sunday. With the win, the Islanders now boast a three-game winning streak. They also won four of the six games played at UBS Arena and, notably, have returned to .500 on the season with 24 wins in 56 games.
Considering the Islanders were struggling when they began the homestand and looked poised to trade away key players at the deadline, they desperately needed the strong performances. With eight points, the team made up ground in the Metropolitan Division and, more importantly, maintain the possibility of earning a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Moreover, the homestand saw the team return to their formula of success and playing their style rather than chasing the game.
Lee & Nelson Continue to Lead the Offense
The highlight of the season for Anders Lee was scoring a hat trick against the Columbus Blue Jackets on March 10, nearly a year after being placed on long term injured reserve with a torn ACL. Lee led the Islanders’ offense throughout the game and appropriately capped off his first career hat trick on the power play from the middle of offensive zone, where he has found success throughout the season.
Lee has 21 goals on the season and has been red hot recently, scoring seven goals in the last four games, largely off his scoring instincts. The Islanders’ captain is the team’s best finisher and waits for the offense to develop, with skaters like Mathew Barzal drawing their opponent’s attention. Lee’s absence was felt in the second half of last season as the team lacked a forward that could make an impact near the net. With the veteran starting to find his scoring touch, the Islanders look poised to rebound on the season.
Along with Lee, the Islanders continue to find offense from their leading goal-scorer, Brock Nelson, who scored four goals during the homestand. Nelson has 23 goals and 11 assists on the season and has effectively created offense off the rush as well as in the offensive zone, leading his shift and making the players around him better. The Islanders’ recent games have proven that the team will rely on their two leading scorers to help carry the offense and lead their respective lines, making the forward unit tough to stop.
Bailey Attacking the Net
Entering the game against the Blue Jackets, Josh Bailey was in the midst of one of the worst slumps of his career. The veteran forward was on an 18-game scoreless drought and has only scored three goals on the season after many missed shots near the net. Bailey finally found the back of the net against the Blue Jackets, taking advantage of a great centering pass from Kyle Palmieri, and suddenly found his scoring touch and created chances in the offensive zone.
Bailey crashed the net in the offensive zone and waited for the puck to find him rather than create the scoring chance. He is typically known as a puck distributor on the Islanders’ later forward lines with 21 assists on the season, but the recent games allowed him to play a different role in the offense. Playing alongside Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Palmieri, Bailey found his spot near the net and scored twice against the Winnipeg Jets, leading to the 5-2 victory.
Palmieri was the Islanders’ top acquisition at last year’s trade deadline but struggled in the regular season, failing to find a rhythm. But in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, he started to find open shots and pick apart opposing goaltenders, scoring seven goals in the playoffs and suddenly turning him into one of the Islanders’ best goal scorers.
In the first half of this season, Palmieri once again struggled and only scored one goal in his first 29 games played. Recently, he has taken more aggressive shots and allowed his accuracy to find the back of the net. Not only has it paid off for the 31-year-old forward, with eight goals in the last 14 games, but it’s also helped the Islanders find offense throughout their forward unit. He scored two goals against the Ducks, both off of great shots that couldn’t be stopped by opposing goaltender John Gibson, bringing his goal total on the season to nine.
Sorokin on Rest
Ilya Sorokin is having a great season and oftentimes has been the best player for the Islanders. Sorokin has started 39 of the team’s 56 games, and the workload understandably has affected the young goaltender. With Semyon Varlamov starting on the season on the injured reserve and missing multiple games following the All-Star break, the 26-year-old goaltender has been asked to start multiple games in a row and often on short rest.
In the recent homestand, Sorokin started three games, but each start was on a few days’ rest, with Varlamov starting the previous game. As a result, Sorokin only allowed four goals in the three games while making 98 saves, highlighted by a shutout against the Blue Jackets, his sixth of the season. The young goaltender has looked sharp and dialed in when well-rested, and the recent games have proven once again why a great goaltending duo is pivotal to the Islanders’ success.
Aho Steps Up in Chara’s Absence
Sebastian Aho was called up to fill in on the left side of the defense to fill in for Zdeno Chara, who missed six games with an upper-body injury. The 26-year-old defenseman struggled at times, making mistakes in the defensive zone and allowing opponents to find open shots on the net. But throughout the homestand, the young defenseman stepped up helped on the later defensive pairings. Moreover, Aho added speed and a strong presence from the point, helping open up the Islanders’ offense, proving he could be part of the defensive unit shortly and possibly take on a bigger role.
Chara returned against the Jets, where the Islanders only allowed two goals in the game, and the veteran defenseman stepped up in a strong defensive performance from the team. Since returning, Chara has looked sharp and is skating better, giving the Islanders a more complete defense. The hope is that the time away from the team not only allowed the veteran defenseman to recover but also allowed him to come back stronger.
Islanders Defense Steps up at the Blue Line
The Islanders’ defensive unit limited opponents from carrying the puck into the offensive zone and establishing a strong offensive zone presence. One of the most successful elements of the defensive unit in recent seasons has been daring opposing forwards to chip the puck into the offensive zone and then try to control possession along the boards. Unfortunately, this season, the unit has been slower and less effective in the neutral zone. The recent games saw the defense, led by Adam Pelech, Ryan Pulock, and Scott Mayfield, step up at the blue line and in the neutral zone and not only cut off angles to the net but force opponents to chip the puck into the offensive zone.
Other Notes From the Islanders’ Homestand
Varlamov started three of the six games and was the recipient of both the Islanders’ losses in the homestand. However, the losses can’t be pinned on the veteran goaltender, as he was overwhelmed with shots in both games, facing 38 shots from the Vancouver Canucks and 49 shots in the 5-4 loss to the Colorado Avalanche. Against the Jets, the defense helped out Varlamov, as he only faced 29 shots in the 5-2 victory, giving Sorokin a night off and helping the Islanders win three consecutive games.
The next two games for the Islanders are on the road against the Washington Capitals and the New York Rangers. Both games are pivotal for the Islanders, as they face two Metropolitan Division opponents who also are two of the best teams in the Eastern Conference.
Mike Fink joined The Hockey Writers in November 2020 and covers the New York Islanders. In addition to covering the Islanders, Fink has written for multiple sports blogs and platforms covering the NHL, NFL, MLB, and college sports. Follow Mike on Twitter @Finks_thoughts for more Islanders and general hockey insights.