The Islanders are at their best when the workload is evenly distributed amongst all four lines.
Through the first two games of the first-round series against the Penguins, that hasn’t been the case. The Islanders need much more from their top line of Leo Komarov, Mathew Barzal and Jordan Eberle.
According to Natural Stat Trick, the first line has only generated six scoring chances, two of which were high-danger opportunities. It’s safe to say that most of those have come from Eberle, who started to get more of a feel for the puck in Game 2 and had arguably the Isles’ best chance at evening the score in the third period of Tuesday’s loss.
Without captain Anders Lee, who was ruled out for the rest of the season in March with an ACL injury, Komarov has filled in on the left wing of the top line. He’s certainly not the most skilled player, but he brings a gritty element to the trio that comes through.
That brings us to Barzal. Head coach Barry Trotz said he feels the 23-year-old center has another gear he can get to, which the Islanders desperately need in order to combat an offensively gifted Penguins squad heading to Long Island with the series tied 1-1.
“He had some shifts [in Game 2] where he almost broke loose,” Trotz said.
Islanders center Mathew Barzal during the Game 2 loss to the Penguins on May 18, 2021.Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
“The number one thing with him, is when he’s skating, you can forget about the hands and all that. If he’s skating in straight lines, and getting to pucks, and playing that give-and-go game, he is extremely dynamic. When he tries to use his hands too much, or play a slow-down game, I don’t think he’s quite as effective. So, we’ve just got to get him play in straight lines.”
The fourth line, which is widely regarded as one of the best in the NHL, has contributed in their own way. While bringing their usual physicality, Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck have generated six high-danger chances together, according to Natural Stat Trick.
But only the middle six has been able to get on the score sheet for the Isles. The third line of Kyle Palmieri, Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Oliver Wahlstrom have led the way, combining for three goals, including two from Palmieri in Game 1.
However, the second line – Anthony Beauvillier, Brock Nelson and Josh Bailey – has been just as effective despite only having one goal from Nelson in the series opener. They’ve been aggressive on the forecheck and have consistently challenged the Penguins.
“I know our opponents, they really respect Nelson’s line,” Trotz said. “I don’t think they’re underrated it at all.’’
Added Nelson: “I’m not too sure how people view us. We believe in each other, that we have a good mix of skill, and want to go out there and try to contribute offensively and be responsible. I think we did a good job of that and built our game a little bit last year, then [we’re] trying to grow on that even more so this year.”