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Struggle and Opportunity; Bellows Fights for More Ice

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This season, New York Islanders head coach Barry Trotz has been hard on 23-year old forward Kieffer Bellows.

But through Bellows’ struggles for a longer leash, it seems that his ability to make the most of an opportunity could lead to that leash extension in the near future.

In the 4-3 shootout loss to the Vegas Golden Knights on Sunday, Bellows struggled with his decision-making in the first period. Two giveaways in his own zone was not how Bellows intended to start his contest, especially after being benched his last time out.

Against the Detroit Red Wings last Tuesday, Bellows sat for all but 55 seconds in the second period of the 3-2 loss.

Like any player in Trotz’s defensive-minded system, the attention to the littlest of details needs to be there. For the offensively driven Bellows, adapting to that style of play has been a challenge and not one that has been easy to overcome.

When the mistakes have come, a lack of playing time has resulted.

After a five-shift first period against Vegas (3:14 TOI), Bellows only saw four shifts in the middle frame (3:44 TOI). His last shift in the second period ended with 1:44 remaining on the clock as he picked up his first career fighting major.

Watch: Bellows Sticks Up For Himself, Greene, Fights Pacioretty

Although Bellows returned to the Islanders bench once the fighting penalty had been served, he waited for his next shift.

And waited.

It seemed Bellows’ mistakes early in the contest had come back to bite him, like in the recent past. And since he needed to take advantage of momentum swings, Trotz elected to cut Bellows’ minutes as Vegas was a team that preyed on mistakes.

But with the clock dwindling and the Islanders searching for an equalizer, Trotz gave Bellows a shot.

One shot was all he would need.

Towards the end of that one shift, Bellows was able to take a nice pass from Zach Parise and use his offensive skill set to tie the game at two.

Bellows used his offensive talent to make a quick, decisive play with the puck on his stick to alter the trajectory of the shot. That got Vegas netminder Robin Lehner guessing where the shot was going, and his incorrect guess had the game knotted at two apiece with 5:41 to go in the third.

Despite the Islanders’ inability to hold on to the lead following their goal-ahead goal with 2:20 left to play, Bellows’ goal played an integral part in the Islanders’ ability to collect a critical point.

Bellows ended the night with a goal and a fight in 7:40 minutes played, the second-fewest minutes he’s played in a game this season.

“I was just trying to go out there and do anything I can to help this team win,” Bellows said.  “Like I’ve said before, if that means score or try to fight, I’ll do what it takes.”

The fact that Bellows found a way to come through with a big goal was rather key for him moving forward.

“Well, you know Kieffer played really well,” Trotz said. “I like his compete. You could tell his feistiness. He got into a fight with Pacioretty, scored a big goal.”

It was also key as there was a new sense of trust that Bellows had instilled in his head coach. As for his lack of minutes, Trotz took the blame for that.

“As a veteran player, you get a little bit probably a little more rope than the younger guy, and Kieffer’s making a case to take get a little more rope every time he gets in there,” Trotz said. “You look at the minutes, he probably deserved a few more, but that’s on me.

“But he’s making a case every time he gets in the lineup.”

Bellows was only called upon twice through the Islanders’ first 11 games of the season. In those two games, Bellows averaged a TOI of 9:28, where he registered zero points with one shot on goal. Besides throwing his weight around (six hits), he seemed more like a passenger on the ice.

Due to COVID, injuries, and lineup maneuvers, Bellows has dressed in 10 of the Islanders’ last 15 contests. He has two goals and three assists over that span, with 10 shots and 24 hits, having averaged 11:32 minutes per game.

Each game for Bellows this season has seen his minutes fluctuate, as he has played as high as 16:20 minutes one night to as low as 7:40 minutes like we saw Sunday.

At this point in his NHL career, Bellows does not have the luxury of working through mid-game struggles. Either he plays the way he needs to or watches the game from the bench.

But after coming through in a big moment for his head coach and his teammates, Bellows may find himself with that longer rope. With Kyle Palmieri still dealing with a lower-body injury, there’s a strong chance Bellows will be in the lineup Thursday against Washington.

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