For the first time in 141 days, the New York Islanders hit the ice for a game, albeit a less meaningful one than many would have preferred. While it was only an exhibition match with the New York Rangers, it was still important as the team finds a rhythm before beginning their qualifier series with the Florida Panthers today. Here are a few takeaways from the game with the Rangers and how it may affect their upcoming series.
If there was any question heading into this game as to who would be starting for the Islanders in Game 1 against the Panthers, Varlamov put an end to it with his performance on Wednesday. In two periods against the Rangers, he stopped 19 of 19 shots, including an amazing two-pad stack save against Jesper Fast in a white-knuckle sequence just over four minutes into the second period.
Outside of those saves, Varlamov looked calm, cool, and collected in 40 minutes of play. The Islander defense didn’t give the Rangers a whole lot, but when they did get an opportunity, Varlamov was there.
In an article published last week, I mentioned that one of the keys to the series against the Panthers would be goaltending. Beyond the Islanders having to solve two-time Vezina Trophy-winner Sergei Bobrovsky, Varlamov — or partner Thomas Greiss — was going to have to shut down the Panthers’ strong offense. It looks like the Islanders will be in good hands come Saturday evening.
First-Line Shut Down
On the other side of the puck, the Islanders kept pace with the Rangers in terms of shots on goal during the second and third periods after getting out-shot 12-6 in the first. And while the Rangers’ defense didn’t always look like they were able to keep up with the Islanders, they did a great job at 5-on-5, shutting down the Isles’ first line of Anders Lee, Mathew Barzal, and Jordan Eberle.
They were able to get some time with the puck in the Rangers’ zone but didn’t generate very many chances. This game was intended to get the rust out and they did have their moments when they played well. However, in all situations, this line only had three shots on goal, including five power plays, which we’ll get to later.
Beauvillier Steps up
With the first line looking like they’re going to need to shake off some more rust before they get going, it’ll be imperative for other players to step up and take the reigns. If they plan on winning close games — as they did against the Rangers (2-1) — and keep up with a loaded Florida offense, they can’t depend on the Barzal line to carry the load alone. Enter Anthony Beauvillier.
The Islanders have a few other scorers in addition to those on the first line, including consistent 20-goal scorer Brock Nelson, that are capable of propelling the Islanders’ offense to victory in close games. Beauvillier, who looked great in this game, has an opportunity to really solidify himself as a game-changing forward. When the regular season ended in March, he was quietly on pace for a career year in goals and set a career high in points. Watching him fly around the ice against the Rangers, racking up an impressive goal on four shots, was a great sign.
Power Play Struggles
Zero for five. The Islanders’ power play went zero for five against the Rangers, which included a fairly long five on three in the first period. This would just be a mild concern and something to keep an eye on if the Islanders had a higher success rate than 17.3% during the regular season. The addition of Jean-Gabriel Pageau on the first group gave the Islanders a more balanced second unit, the latter of which looked really good despite not scoring. A huge surprise there was how well Derick Brassard looked on the second unit. He moved the puck and set up Beauvillier in the high-slot a few times with crisp passes.
One of the issues I found with the first group with the addition of Pageau was that there were three right-handed shots — Barzal, Eberle, and Pageau — on that unit with Lee in front of the net. This made the Islanders very predictable as they set up from the half-wall on the right wing with Barzal playing quarterback almost every time. If they’re going to continue with that configuration, they’ll need to figure out how to move the puck a little better than they did on Wednesday.
Other positive notes from this game include the Islanders’ absolute control of the face-off circle, winning 63% of draws against the Rangers. A big part of this success was the addition of Pageau. Additionally, as I mentioned earlier, Brassard looked really good in this game, including an amazing pass to Devon Toews to put the Islanders up 2-0. On defense, the team kept the playing time pretty balanced, but veteran Andy Greene had a great game alongside rookie Noah Dobson, giving Trotz another pairing if anyone flounders early on against the Panthers.
Overall, the Islanders should feel pretty good heading into Game 1. They proved they can still play their game in front of head coach Barry Trotz and, by and large, the guys who need to get going had a pretty good game. The big question will be if Barzal can get back to his game-breaking form in time to make a difference against the Panthers.
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.