While we can speculate and offer all the takes we want on the New York Islanders, the simple fact is that most of us haven’t seen nearly enough of this team to draw any real conclusions.
You know who has seen enough of them? Our
pals enemies over at Lighthouse Hockey!
To that end, we exchanged some questions with Dominik over at Lighthouse Hockey to give you the inside scoop on the Islanders ahead of tonight’s Game 1.
On paper and with some of the advanced statistics, the Islanders defense doesn’t look great. Is defense a weakness for this team, or are the stats painting the wrong picture?
Probably a bit of both. Overall, they are weaker than they were in the playoff bubble thanks to the trade of Devon Toews (which they tried to avoid, but offloading other cap carriers proved unachievable).
That left Nick Leddy and Scott Mayfield with new partners — each other — and that’s been a weakness for much of the season. Leddy has had his revival moments but had a weak series against the Penguins. Mayfield struggled with his new partner but had a good “old time hockey” series.
All of which gets to the Isles’ foundation: Barry Trotz has them going for quality over quantity, which means they will spend stretches absorbing pressure but keeping high-danger chances down. So their top pair, Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock, had uglier numbers in the first round, but they were pretty much on superstar duty the entire series, no matter which Isles line they had bending in front of them.
It will be interesting and likely pivotal how they do against the Bruins’ top line, because they had some success there at times this season, but that’s a never-ending challenge and a tall order to ask them to win that matchup in four or five out of seven games of a physical series.
From the outside, it looks like the Isles bounce between goalies. Give a quick overview of the goalie situation, and who do you expect to see more of in this series?
Semyon Varlamov had the better season while his friend Ilya Sorokin, a KHL all-star and champion, adjusted to this North American life and NHL play.
The Isles clearly would’ve preferred to go with Varlamov — who had an excellent bubble last summer — but that’s not to say they don’t have major faith in Sorokin. Sorokin is their future, he’s already prime age, his athleticism was huge in the first round.
Varlamov had an unspecified injury and was held out in the final [game] of the season, which is why he didn’t play Game 1 against the Penguins. When they started him in Games 2 and 3, he let in some uncharacteristic goals. Whether that was just rust, the random chance that sometimes happens, or lingering effects from the injury, we of course don’t know.
I expect Sorokin to start the series, but the first loss he suffers in which he gives up an iffy goal or two, I could see them going back to Varlamov. And if Varlamov is healthy and on form, he could make the difference if he enters the series and it’s not too late.
What do you consider this Islanders team’s biggest strength? Biggest weakness?
Certainly their biggest strength is a cohesive, disciplined approach by all four lines that prioritizes defense first. While they understandably get the “boring” reputation under Trotz, the reality is the way they cut down on excitement is by cutting down on risk and chaos.
As teams get frustrated by accumulating zone time without truly good looks, the opponent make mistakes and give up counterattacks. Anthony Beauvillier and Josh Bailey helped scorch Sidney Crosby or his linemates at key moments in the last series through such scenarios. Crosby had lots of possession, but not lots of results. And Sorokin stoned him.
Their weakness might be what you mentioned is one of your fears: I actually think it’s the lack of high-end offense. Mathew Barzal and Jordan Eberle often offer that and have the talent, but they’ve been hamstrung by the season-ending injury to Anders Lee on that line.
Leo Komarov is a defensive conscience and can help keep that line functional, but his lack of offensive potency keeps that line from having the kind of big nights they have when Lee’s on their left side.
The Isles generally have balanced scoring — JG Pageau centers a “third” line where he can make it work with any wingers — but it hurts to not have a third weapon on the Barzal/Eberle line. They started to come on a bit late in the last round, but I just see them having difficulty doing any better than breaking even against the Bruins.
Fill in the blank, and add a “why”: For the Islanders to win this series, _____________ needs to be their biggest player.
It’s the old cliche to go with the goalie, but given all I said above it would have to be Sorokin. If they go to Varlamov at some point, that will mean Sorokin faltered.
The best chance for them to win as underdogs is if Sorokin continues his form and expands his budding legend.
These two teams met a bunch of times this season. What, if anything, has changed, since then?
To my eyes, it’s the loss of Anders Lee and the addition of Taylor Hall. That’s a massive swing that greatly changes how I would’ve looked at this matchup a few months ago.
The Isles have struggled so much against the Bruins in recent years, it was a great relief to Isles fans for the Isles to pile up wins early on. But I don’t delude myself into thinking it was a lopsided first five games, as there were some nailbiters.
Overall, I think these two teams are great at keeping a consistent approach, so not much has changed there. I fear it’s going to be a taxing series that might leave the survivor limping into the next round.
What do you think we as Bruins fans should know about this Islanders team?
A couple of things: Though Barzal gets the highlights, the best line in last year’s playoff run and the first round this season was Brock Nelson with Josh Bailey and Anthony Beauvillier.
Nelson is really versatile (and gets under opponents’ skin with a thousand-yard shit-disturbing stare). Bailey is a passing winger (and former center) who makes smart positional plays all over the ice. Beauvillier has speed and finishing ability in tight. They’ll need to continue what they did last round for the Isles to succeed.
The second thing is that Pelech and Pulock are a quietly good top pair. People might be getting a better picture of that if they watched the first round and/or heard Pierre McGuire constantly pumping Pelech’s tires. (Then again, when I hear Pierre go on and on about anything I instinctively view it with suspicion.)
Pelech has great reach and anticipation, so if you appreciate individual defensive play, you’ll likely notice him make some subtly stellar moves to quash chances.