After a 5-0-0 week against the Pittsburgh Penguins, New Jersey Devils, and Buffalo Sabres thrice, the New York Islanders sit atop the MassMutual East Division. After an impressive February where the Isles went 8-2-2, Barry Trotz and Co. continued their impressive play into the month of March.
What’s most impressive about the Islanders’ success is the scoring depth, as there are currently five players on the roster with nine or more goals (Anders Lee, Mat Barzal, J.G. Pageau, Jordan Eberle, & Brock Nelson). Add the fact that the Islanders’ fourth line is looking more like themselves these days, and you have a recipe that Trotz has used before that contributes to the team’s success.
“When you’re getting production through your whole lineup, you’re putting the other team on that fine edge because if they know they get shut down… you can hurt them in other areas,” Islanders head coach Trotz said of his fourth line’s continued success in which they scored five goals in the mini-series against Buffalo.
The fourth line has accounted for five of the Islanders’ last 19 goals, two from Cal Clutterbuck, two from Matt Martin, and one from Casey Cizikas. The Islanders’ fourth-line center attributes some of the success to playing at Nassau Coliseum again.
“This is our ice, this is our home,” Cizikas said. “We want to put our best game forward… When [an opponent] comes here, they know it’s going to be a dogfight.”
Nassau Coliseum continues to live up to its “Fort Nerverlose” nickname, but it’s the depth of the Islanders’ scoring that has them holding first place in the juggernaut East Division and their top players are leading the charge.
Lee-ding the Way
The Islanders’ captain has been a force to be reckoned with in the 2020-21 season. After two down seasons since scoring 40-goals in 2017-18, Lee has found his scoring touch once again. Over an 82-game season, Lee is on a 39-goal scoring pace and shows no signs of slowing down.
He’s found his spot as the net-front presence, making a case for being one of the best net-front presences in the league. Of his 12 goals thus far, 10 have found twine from just above the goalie crease, just like you see above. His 78 shots lead the Islanders in said category, and his 15.4 shooting percentage sits third among Islanders skaters. Only Eberle has a better Corsi-for percentage (CF%) than Lee’s 55.04%, an elite number for the Islanders leading goal scorer.
“I’m seeing the same player that I saw in the [postseason] bubble,” Trotz said. “Very determined. He changed a bit of his training and that has helped. I think his line is maturing. [Mathew] Barzal continues to mature his overall game and [Jordan Eberle] is refining his game. But Lee has probably been our most consistent guy all year.”
The Islanders’ first line has emerged as a true first line in the NHL, large in part to the growth of Lee in his age 30 season.
Speaking of players growing and maturing, there’s no doubt you’ve already seen the number of highlight-reel goals scored by the Islanders’ star center this season. It’s no coincidence that as Barzal’s game matures, his linemates reap the benefits, and the first line is soaring.
Barzal is in a four-way tie for second in goals among Islanders skaters with nine. What’s most encouraging about Barzal’s newfound scoring touch is that the goals are coming in a multitude of ways. His speed has always been there, but his strength on his skates and on the puck has taken a step or two forward this season. Just ask Rasmus Ristolainen and Carter Hutton of the Buffalo Sabres.
Leading the Islanders in points with 22, Barzal has started to put his name in the conversation with some of the league’s top players. In comparison, Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers sports a 58.55 expected goals for percentage (xGF%), and Barzal is not too far behind at 57.21%.
“Mathew’s one of those guys, the really high skilled guys with that tremendous speed like (Nathan) Mackinnon, (Connor) McDavid, said Trotz. “When they give it up and get it back, they’re almost unstoppable. That’s where Mathew’s game has grown the most. And he’ll still take you on one-on-one. That’s the biggest growth, the offensive stuff without the puck.” (from ‘Mathew Barzal, committed to the Islanders, evolves in front of their eyes’ – The Athletic – 02/04/2021)
Barzal’s emergence as a true, elite first-line center has helped the Islanders take yet another step forward in year three of the Lou Lamoriello/Trotz regime, a trend that continues to climb in an upward direction.
Pageau and Eberle have had real strong 2020-21 seasons and are part of the four-way tie for second among Islanders skaters in goals, along with Nelson. It’s taken Nelson a little longer to hit his stride, but he’s starting to return to form after collecting his ninth of the year a few nights ago against the Sabres.
What’s encouraging about this group of players is that they each play on a different line. It proves that on any given shift, Trotz can roll out any of the Isles’ four lines, and there’s always a chance for offensive opportunity. Eberle’s offense is most impressive of the three, with a 61.16 xGF%, while Pageau continues to get it done in all aspects of his game as a true swiss-army-knife for Trotz.
It’s a breath of fresh air to see how well the Islanders are playing, however, there is still one underlying issue coming from the blueline. Nick Leddy is having a nice offensive season with 16 total points, however, he has only found the back of the net once thus far. And although Ryan Pulock has 10 points, none are goals, and he’s still searching for his first of the season. In fact, no Islanders defenseman has more than two goals this year (Noah Dobson & Scott Mayfield), and the Islander blueline has only accounted for six goals through 25 games.
It’s not necessarily a major concern, as the defense is helping set up the offense, even if they’re not finding the back of the net too often themselves. However, one does wonder where the Isles 2.92 goals per game (17th in the NHL) would be if the defense could score a little more.
Regardless, the Islanders are on an impressive run over the past month and a half, and as long as the team’s health can stay consistent, so should the depth of the scoring. The advantage the Islanders have over most of their opponents is the ability to roll four lines, something not many, if any, can claim themselves. The emergence of a true first line has created a positive trend throughout the lineup, and the Islanders are now scoring with confidence throughout the top-9, a trend that should see the Islanders clinch a playoff spot, and make another run at a Stanley Cup.
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