“In a chaotic time, they all know what their roles are,” Sportsnet’s Elliot Friedman said. “Who knows who will be available, the schedule – I think it plays to their strengths.”
Heading into the 2020-21 shortened NHL season, many believe the New York Islanders’ mostly unchanged roster will work to their advantage. After last night’s 4-0 victory over the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden, they proved it, looking like the same team that made it to the Eastern Conference Final in 2020.
Brock Nelson opened the scoring 2:33 into the first period on an Islanders power play that seemed livelier. Despite the instant success, the power play struggled throughout the rest of the game, going just 2/8.
Captain Anders Lee chipped in two goals in true Lee fashion, parking himself in front of the net, burying a rebound, and later deflecting one home. Mat Barzal also undressed Rangers defenseman Tony D’Angelo for a beautiful goal that looked like this:
“I missed 3-4 days of camp, and the boys said I missed the toughest days,” Barzal said. “It was a lot of detail work, battle drills and I think you saw what we brought tonight. A good 60 (minutes) by everyone” (from ‘Islanders waste no time starting the season in style against Rangers,’ The Athletic, 01/14/2021).
Varlamov Blanks the Rangers
Goaltender Semyon Varlamov wasn’t tested often, but when he was, he was outstanding. Spoiling Alexis Lafreniere’s NHL debut, Varlamov made 24 saves for the shutout.
He has only allowed one goal or fewer in eight of his past 20 starts, including last year’s playoffs. That should help ease the transition for rookie Ilya Sorokin, as head coach Barry Trotz will likely continue to start Varlamov after a strong performance.
“Every time I play the game, I know I’m going to have a chance to win because I know who I’m playing with,” Varlamov said. “I’m really confident in this team.”
Expect to see Varlamov again on Saturday, which will postpone Sorokin’s much-anticipated debut.
After signing a new 3-year deal worth $10 million in the final year, many have Barzal pegged to return to his rookie-year output and solidify himself as a star. We didn’t expect it to happen so fast.
“You just want to come out feeling good,” Barzal said. “Just in general, the Islanders, Ranger rivalry, both guys are excited to play in it… it’s just a good rivalry.”
Barzal was on a mission last night. The puck seemed to be on his stick for 30 of each 45-second shift. Trotz knows Barzal has another level to his game without the puck, and it’s starting to show. Rangers defenseman, Adam Fox attempted to start a breakout from his own end, until Barzal stripped him of the puck.
“He’s so instinctive offensively, if we can get him to have a balance at times it will help him get the puck more,” Trotz said. “He can be as good as he wants to be.”
That’s starting to happen more often and will lead to a plethora of scoring chances this season.
The Blue Line
A few modifications to the Islanders’ defense didn’t stop them from looking steady as always. Andy Greene and Noah Dobson are still getting acclimated with each other, but it wasn’t often they appeared out of sync. As for the rest of the defense, it was business as usual, allowing no goals, blocking 14 shots and chipping in a couple of helpers. Despite a few hiccups, Dobson looked poised, and confident, fitting in seamlessly on the blue line.
Power play opportunities were few and far between during the 2019-20 season. After a shortened training camp and no exhibition games, the Islanders will likely have more chances as teams adjust to regular-season hockey. An uptick in penalties means the Islanders will have to cash in on more opportunities rather than sit in the mid to low range of conversion rates.
“You know there’s going to be some chances early in the year,” said Lee. The captain might be the most crucial factor in the Islanders’ power play. Had he cashed in on a couple of missed opportunities against the Rangers, he would have matched his power-play goal total for all of last season.
From 2015-19, Lee scored 46 power-play goals, so after a down year, he’s looking to return to his former self. After a strong two-goal performance, he’s on the right track, which would be an incredible boost for the team’s power play.
Jordan Eberle had an outstanding game. He’s another Islanders forward looking to rebound from a down year. “Ebs was dangerous. He could have had three or four points,” Trotz said. He dished a puck to Lee for this outstanding power-play goal:
At the other end, the penalty kill was business as usual. Face-offs were key for the Islanders, as J.G. Pageau won 56% of his draws, while Casey Cizikas won a whopping 82%. Limiting high-danger chances, and keeping shots to the perimeter, the Islanders’ penalty kill appears to already be in mid-season form.
Strong Third Line
Both Kieffer Bellows and Ross Johnston slotted in on Pageau’s wing for the opening-night contest. The third line, except for Pageau, got some limited minutes in the first period, but as the game progressed, they saw more ice. Bellows had a strong performance in just 10:25 of ice time. He recorded a game-high eight hits and should receive another opportunity to play on Saturday.
In the most positive of ways, it was the same ol’ Islanders on Thursday night. Cruising to a 4-0 victory, the team played to their strengths and cashed in on opportunities. However, don’t expect the same lackluster performance from the Rangers on Saturday. The Rangers will be looking for a stronger showing in the second of a back-to-back series, so the Islanders will have to have a short memory and stick to their game.
Expect Trotz to have his team ready, however. He’s not satisfied, and won’t be for a while. “I liked our game,” he said. “But there’s another level to our game.”
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James is a THW New York Islanders writer and podcast host of Nassaumen Hockey Podcast. A trusted source for Islanders content for many years at THW, James is passionate about keeping Islander fans up to date on the latest in Islanders news. Other content contributions also include his Co-Editor-in-Chief status for NYIslesBlog.com. For interview requests or to provide content info, follow James on Twitter.