“Everybody is playing playoff hockey right now.” — Islanders Head Coach, Barry Trotz during Thursday’s morning media availability.
Are we really talking about PLAYOFFS 4 games into the season?
YES, Yes we are. And that’s because in this shortened 56-game (as opposed to a standard 82-game) season, every game weighs that much more in the chase for the playoffs. Think of it like this; in a normal season, the intensity ramps up around January 1st, which is usually around the 40-game mark for most teams. This year, the season began on January 13th (the Isles began Jan. 14th), so it’s only natural for the intensity of the games to match the time of year rather than the number of games into the schedule.
Thursday night saw the Nassaumen beat the New Jersey Devils 4-1 at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, Long Island. And the game had an air of electricity — even without actual fans present — right from the opening face-off.
Prior to the game, Brock Nelson said, “We want to get to our game, try to get on the attack and play their style against them.” The Islanders certainly did that and it was all thanks to the start Mathew Barzal got off to.
Barzal, who has burned the Devils (no pun intended) throughout his career, opened the scoring with an absolute snipe job 4:43 into the first period. He skated from his own zone like he was shot out of a cannon, blew past Nikita Gusev and wired his shot from the right side to the upper left corner, over Scott Wedgewood’s right shoulder for the 1-0 Islanders lead. The goal gave him 8-points in 11 career games against The Garden Staters; with many more likely to come.
In fact, the Isles’ scheduled game against the Devils came at a terrific time for Barzal as he came into the game with just a single goal on the season. And Trotz had made it known from time to time over the past few seasons that Barzal needs to be more of an impact player.
According to Barzal after the game: “For me, it’s trying to be more assertive when I get to a situation that’s pass or shoot.” He certainly did that on his goal against Wedgewood.
“When he’s going, he’s obviously our leader offensively, one of the best players in the league offensively,” said Nelson after the game.
From that point on, the Boys from Long Island controlled the pace of play; even running off an 11-0 shots on goal run at one point. And Barzal was never far from the action as he showed just how his speed and skating abilities allow him to take over a game when he’s locked in. (Who knows, maybe he’s feeling extra fresh thanks to missing the first several days of training camp?)
As the period of Barzal wound down, the Isles spark plug intercepted a pass in his own zone and sent it up ice for Anders Lee, who out-battled P.K. Subban for the puck and passed it over to Jordan Eberle who broke in alone on Wedgewood, who was the emergency starter after MacKenzie Blackwood was placed on the NHL’s COVID list shortly before gametime. Eberle settled down the puck and on his backhand no less, put the puck over Wedgewood’s blocker for the 2-0 NY lead at the 19:39 mark of the opening period. (That’s now 9-points in 11 games for Barzal against the Devils).
The second period began with Islanders goalie Semyon Varlamov touting a 140-minute shutout streak, but that was ended just 2:10 into the period by Devils’ right-wing, Nathan Bastian, who’s clear-sighted wrist shot from the high slot went over Varlamov’s right pad and into the Isles’ net to cut the home team’s lead to 2-1. For Varlamov, it was the first goal he had allowed this season (Ilya Sorokin was in net for the Isles 5-0 loss to the Rangers). According to the NHL’s Public Relations Twitter account, it was the 8th longest shutout streak by a goaltender, to begin a season in NHL history.
That was it for the scoring in the middle period, although both teams did have one power-play chance each; with Nelson and Ty Smith being the two offenders. For the Nassaumen, their successful kill of the Devils’ power-play continued their hot-streak on the penalty-kill to open the season as it brought them to a white-hot 14-for-15.
Nelson experienced a brief scare in the final minute of the period when a collision with Subban left him bloodied as he was cut above his right eye and skated immediately off the ice. But fear not for he returned (he’s a hockey player after all) to start the third period and even got on the scoresheet.
But we’ll get to that in a moment.
Heading into the third period, the Islanders were in the midst of a 2-for-18 slump on the power-play for the season, with their only two goals coming against the Rangers on opening night.
That soon changed.
1:34 into the final period, Travis Zajac was called for a hooking penalty against Anthony Beauvillier, sending the home team to the power-play. All it took to change the Isles’ power-play misfortune was 21 seconds, as Eberle scored his second goal of the night on a sharp-angle shot past Wedgewood after a plucky bounce off the boards landed right on the sniper’s blade. 3-1 Islanders.
As MSG Network’s Brendan Burke quipped after the goal, “who said the boards are dead.” A reference to Barry Trotz’s comments about how many of the boards at Nassau Coliseum are dead rather than lively like many across the league.
As Eberle said after the game: “You want to get off to a good start. You put the puck in once and you start to feel it especially when you get into Game 3, 4, 5. You want to contribute… We created a few chances… we just haven’t capitalized. It was nice to finish off a few today.”
Eberle’s goal snapped the Isles’ power-play slump and even started a hot-streak.
That’s right, just around two minutes later the Devils committed a “too many men on the ice penalty” and sent New York back to the power-play.
Feeding off of Eberle’s goal, Nick Leddy fired a shot from the point through traffic and Nelson tipped it past Wedgewood for the 4-1 lead. Two power-plays, two-power-play goals for the Boys from Long Island and all of a sudden, their ice-cold power-play was red-hot.
And even though there aren’t actual fans in the stands — there are some cardboard cutouts — you got the sense from the arena that the Devils were cooked.
In regards to said cardboard cutouts, Trotz had this to say before the game: “The cutouts say a lot about our fans, they’re a really passionate group. It’s great the way it was set up. Anything helps. Trust me, it helps.” They certainly did help as the Isles looked to improve to 2-0 at home in front of those cardboard fans.
14:44 later, the game was officially over and the Islanders had their third win of the season in their first four games. And following the final horn Matt Martin and Matt Tennyson exchanged pleasantries after Tennyson’s late hit on Casey Cizikas.
See you Sunday for Round Two.
“Every game is going to be different. We have confidence in everybody in the room…We played fast. We got the D involved. I think everybody believes in each other,” said Nelson after the game; which is as accurate a summation of the game as you’ll find.
Mathew Barzal’s goal and two-assists (on Eberle’s two-goals) give him 10 points in 11 career games against the Devils (he has seven more games against them this season)…Noah Dobson had two-assists, his first career multi-point game (Eberle said this about Dobson after the game: “As his confidence grows, as he continues to play more, he’s going to get better and better. Has all the tools.“)…Jordan Eberle’s two-goals (1 EV, 1 PP) give him 30 career multi-goal games…Semyon Varlamov had his shutout streak broken at 142:10, but he’s still saved 80 of 81 on the season…The Isles’ power-play improved to 4-for-20 on the season while their penalty-kill improved to 14-for-15…Ryan Pulock, Nick Leddy and Dobson all played over 20-minutes; shouldering the load on defense…Andy Greene played his first career game against his former Devils teammates tonight.
Sunday January 24th Islanders at Devils at Prudential Center at 7pm(EST).