The New York Islanders once again find themselves in a great spot after stealing a game on the road against the Tampa Bay Lighting. The Islanders did not need the same scoring burst from earlier rounds but played tremendous defense in Game 1 before a tough loss in Game 2. Now heading home for Games 3 and 4, here is a look at three players who need to step up for the team to advance to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1984.
With the way Mat Barzal has passed the puck in the playoffs, Jordan Eberle needs to find a way to score goals with him. New York is arguably facing the top goaltender in the league in Andrei Vasilevskiy. However, they need the entire first line producing to win this series, and Eberle only has one goal in the last nine games (scored against the Boston Bruins in the second round). He has a pair of assists in the Conference Final, but the Islanders could use a hot streak.
Eberle has had limited ice time in the playoffs, averaging no more than 17 minutes in the last six games. Head coach Barry Trotz likes to roll all four lines, but it’s still surprising to see a first-line player who also sees time on the power play, play so little. I expect the first line to start earning more ice time, and if Eberle can continue to put shots on net – he has 36 in 14 games – the goals will come.
Travis Zajac scored one of the biggest goals of the season in Game 6 against the Bruins, but his job isn’t to produce offensively. He entered the lineup to replace Oliver Wahlstrom, who was injured in the first round against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Trotz is adamant that Wahlstrom is healthy but doesn’t want to switch up his lines, and Zajac is there to play a strong two-way game.
In Game 1, Zajac and linemates Kyle Palmieri and Jean-Gabriel Pageau did a great job of limiting the Lighting’s top line to three shots on goal. That was not the case in Game 2 when Ondrej Palat, Brayden Point, and Nikita Kucherov combined for four points. The Islanders’ though, will have last change, which should help Trotz put Zajac and his line in matchups that benefit the Islanders.
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Depth scoring is essential in the playoffs, and if the Islanders can’t get this kind of production from Zajac, he will likely be the player to draw out of the lineup for Wahlstrom.
It was a very interesting regular season for Islanders’ defensemen Nick Leddy. He had two assists in his first game and resembled his offensive game from when he won a Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks. Other times, he has been relatively quiet. The Islanders need Leddy to use his speed to create odd-man rushes since there are few ways to beat Vasilevskiy, and New York’s best chances have come off the rush.
Like Zajac, Leddy will benefit from playing at Nassau Coliseum. Teams like to keep their top forwards away from the Islanders’ top defensive duo of Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock, and Trotz has countered with Leddy and Scott Mayfield. With last change, Leddy will instead be counted on to limit the Lightning’s second line of Alex Killorn, Steven Stamkos, and Anthony Cirelli.
At the end of the day, the Islanders will need a team effort to win this series, but if they can get increased production from these three players and continue to get great goaltending and strong play from their stars, they will have a chance to make a special run.