The New York Islanders faced two Atlantic Division opponents in rematches from the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season, with matchups against the Boston Bruins and the Tampa Bay Lightning. The games were a reminder of how much can change in one season, as the Islanders lost to the Bruins 6-3 and the Lightning 4-1.
The Islanders have only won 28 of their 64 games, and remain outside of the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. The team entered the season with Stanley Cup aspirations, but following the trade deadline, it simply looks to finish the season strong. The most recent games were a reminder of what the Islanders will need to focus on in the remaining games of the season.
Islanders Defense Struggles
The Islanders have been carried by their defensive unit in recent seasons, and this one has been no exception. Whether it’s Adam Pelech forcing turnovers against opposing forwards on the rush, or Noah Dobson skating through all three zones, the Islanders defensive unit has often led the team to victories.
Recently, the defensive unit has started to feel the effect of Scott Mayfield’s absence, as the veteran defenseman was placed on injured reserve and will likely be out for the rest of the regular season. Mayfield gave the Islanders great play in both the neutral zone and defensive zone, and was one of the more disciplined skaters on the team, preventing opponents from finding scoring chances near the net.
In the last two games, the Islanders’ defensive unit particularly struggled on the later defensive pairings. Sebastian Aho was called up from the Bridgeport Islanders and showed promise, but against the Bruins he allowed David Pastrnak to gain position in a pivotal second period goal. Veteran Andy Greene was out-skated by Victor Hedman on an odd-man rush on the game-tying goal, and that fueled four unanswered goals for the Lightning. The team allowed 10 goals in two games, and many of the goals came from poor plays in the defensive unit, especially on the later pairings.
Varlamov’s Rough Start
Semyon Varlamov has started to split starts with Ilya Sorokin, and recently has helped form a strong goaltending duo for the Islanders. Unfortunately, against the Bruins, nothing went right for the veteran goaltender, who allowed six goals on 44 shots in the 6-3 defeat. Varlamov wasn’t picking up shots, and some rough bounces only made the afternoon start worse. Jake DeBrusk’s tap-in goal that bounced off the goaltender and into the back of the net particularly stood out in a four-goal second period where every break went the Bruins’ way.
Varlamov also got the surprise start in the third period against the Lightning, as Sorokin left the game early with an upper-body injury. It’s unclear how long Sorokin will be out for, and as a result the Islanders will have to rely heavily on their veteran goaltender with the hope that the one-goal third period was a sign of a rebound. Varlamov has been a reliable goaltender in the recent games, making the rough start against the Bruins even more surprising and the hope from the team is that the 33-year-old goaltender will rebound and provide a strong presence once again in the net.
Nelson Carrying the Offense
One of the bright spots from the Islanders has been the continued phenomenal play from veteran forward Brock Nelson. The red-hot forward scored in back-to-back games against the Bruins and the Lightning, bringing his goal total to 31 on the season, leading the roster. Nelson has scored four goals in the last three games — 12 goals in his last 13 — and has particularly been effective alongside Anthony Beauvillier and Anders Lee who have benefitted from the veteran forwards play-making ability to help form the best forward line for the team.
Nelson eclipsed the 30-goal mark for the first time in his career, and at 31 years old, is showing no signs of slowing down. The veteran forward has helped start up the offense with speed on the rush and great control in the center of the offensive zone, which helps lead his forward shift. However, the ability to finish in the offensive zone and find the back of the net with quick shots has led to a career year and has allowed the forward to carry an offense that has otherwise struggled.
Islanders Forward Depth Issues
The Islanders’ forward unit lost Cal Clutterbuck last week, and will be without the veteran fourth-line forward for the rest of the season due to an upper-body injury. While Ross Johnston has stepped up in Clutterbuck’s absence and is helping the Islanders forward unit on the forecheck to help create turnovers in the offensive zone, the offense has struggled. Moreover, the forward unit collectively is having a difficult time creating scoring chances outside of the Nelson-Lee-Beauvillier line which scored three of the four goals for the team in the last two games.
Other Notes From The Islanders’ Losses
The Islanders played three games in four nights for the second week in a row. They entered the second half with games in hand, but the overwhelming schedule has left this team fatigued, especially at the end of a long stretch of games. Last week, they were outskated against the Philadelphia Flyers in a 2-1 loss, and to cap off the most recent weekend, suffered the same problems against a talented Lightning team.
The Islanders’ next two games will be against the Columbus Blue Jackets in a home-and-home mini-series. The Metropolitan Division rival is ahead of the Islanders in the standings and a crucial team to defeat for a team hoping to finish the season strong.
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.