When the New York Islanders lost forward Mathew Barzal on Feb. 18, the thought that the season was over crossed everyone’s minds.
With the Islanders still fighting for a playoff spot with so many critical games on the horizon, not having one of the top players on the team was more than just a little obstacle. Already ransacked with injuries, how could head coach Lane Lambert get his team to rise above it?
Well, after six games without Barzal, the Islanders have gone 4-1-1, with a monumental comeback win over the Pittsburgh Penguins, two enormous wins over the dynamic Winnipeg Jets, a strong showing against the Minnesota Wild with one point to show for it, one weak showing against the Los Angeles Kings, capped off by dominance Saturday afternoon in a win over the Detroit Red Wings.
Over the course of the last six games, the Islanders have the fourth-best point percentage in the NHL at .750 and have outscored their opponents 17-9.
What’s been the reasons for their success?
Dominating in the Crease
The New York Islanders, as they have done all season, have relied heavily on their goaltending. With Mathew Barzal out, it’s been even more critical for the netminders to elevate their game.
Ilya Sorokin has started five of the six games, posting a 1.58 GAA with a .948 SV%. To put into perspective just how lethal he’s been, he owns a 2.34 GAA and a .925 SV% on the season.
Semyon Varlamov has made one start and shined, earning a shutout against the Jets, stopping all 23 shots that came his way.
Per Naturalstatrick.com, the Islanders have had an Expected Goals Against of 16.02 since Barzal went down, and as you read earlier, the Islanders have allowed a total of nine.
Of the nine goals allowed, Sorokin allowing all nine, three have come via opponent power plays.
Sorokin’s five-on-five statistics are tremendous, with a 1.21 GAA and a .961 SV%.
Everyone Raising Their Game
Over these past six games, the New York Islanders have seen most of their roster raise their game in Mat Barzal’s absence. While Lane Lambert has switched up three of his four lines like clockwork (not touching the Brock Nelson line), 17 of 21 rostered players have notched at least one point.
Arnaud Durandeau (four games), Ross Johnston (four games), Pierre Engvall (one game), and Andy Andreoff (four games) are the only ones without a point.
Thirteen of the 17 point-getters have more than a point, with 13 of the 17 notching two points or more.
Brock Nelson, the Islanders’ strongest player throughout the season, has six points in six games, with three goals and three assists.
Zach Parise (1G, 3A), Bo Horvat (2G, 2A), and Anders Lee (3G, 1A) each have four.
Now we get to the bottom six players and the defense.
Matt Martin and Hudson Fasching each have three assists, with Casey Cizikas recording two.
The defense has accumulated five goals and five assists, with the defensive-minded Adam Pelech leading the way with two goals, while Scott Mayfield leads with two assists.
Forward Kyle Palmieri has just one goal and one assist, but he’s done a tremendous job away in critical moments, with his ability to protect the puck and draw penalties coming to the forefront.
Bo Horvat has led the way in the face-off dot, winning 66.06 percent of his draws (72 of 109). Casey Cizikas has won 52.87 (46 of 87), and Otto Koivula has won nine of his 13 draws (69.23 percent).
Nelson is the only center to struggle in the dot, winning just 37.10 percent of his draws (23 of 62). But he’s led the team in points, so he does get a pass.
“We’ve taken onus on the situation that we’re in,” Islanders captain Anders Lee said about not having Mat Barzal and others. “We’re in and the opportunity that we had and have really come together and played some really solid hockey over the last few weeks and still got a long way to go.
“So we got to keep climbing and keep and keep pushing, but we definitely pulled ourselves back into the fight, and at that time, it’s all we could do and continuing forward and doing. Doing what we can each night is our main focus.”
Back to Basics
Mathew Barzal adds a creative dynamic to the offense that’s been missed in his absence. If you are reading this thinking that the Islanders are a better team with Barzal missing, that’s just incorrect.
He’s their strongest skater, the hardest player for opposing players to read, and without him, the Islanders lack that creativity in the offensive zone.
Not to mention, Barzal’s 200-foot game has been strongly improved this season, and he has made game-altering plays on backcheck, which have gone unnoticed.
Without Barzal, Lambert and his team have gone back to the basics.
They’ve played a completely north-south game more so than an east-west game.
For those unfamiliar with that hockey lingo, north-south means up the rink and down the rink. East-west is more skating from side to side in transition, a more complex game where Barzal’s style comes into play.
All the lines have kept it simple. Transition the puck up the ice, get shots on goal as quickly as possible, crash the net for rebounds, or win board battles and start cycles.
“I think we’re doing a lot of good things,” Islanders head coach Lane Lambert said. “As I’ve said before, it’s an individual entity, so you don’t get ahead of yourselves, and you get yourself prepared for the next game.
“But I like the way our team’s playing. I like the thought process and how we’re playing, and we need to continue to do that.”
Horvat, who, again, clicked rather quickly with Barzal, has been the puck carrier for his line more often now with Barzal down. He hasn’t hesitated to take the puck toward goal, with 17 total shots, 15 at even-strength, averaging 2.833 shots per game.
Out of the 17 goals, four have come off hard forechecking. Another four have come off the rush. The others have come off quick shots rather than dilly-dallying in the offensive zone. Sprinkle in a couple of power-play goals and one shorthanded marker.
Defensively, the Islanders have been more structured than ever.
The Islanders have allowed 29.5 shots against per game over the last six, which is lower than their season average of 31.6. They’ve cleaned up their net-front presence a bit, and a lot of their offensive chances and goals have come directly off strong plays in front of their own crease.
The most significant difference has been certain players on the backend stepping up.
Pelech has looked much stronger after needing a good amount of time to get back to full strength after missing 21 games. Alexander Romanov and Scott Mayfield have also looked much stronger defensively since Lambert has used them with different combinations.
“When you lose an important piece of your team like that, I think it really brought in everyone’s focus on doing the little things and being better at doing the little things consistently,” Ryan Pulock told NYI Hockey now. “It shouldn’t take that, but we’ve done a good job of it, of just really being really detailed and been doing a really good job structurally.
“It’s not that we changed anything. I think we’re just more consistent with doing the right thing.