It was a game the Islanders had to have for a plethora of reasons.
The Islanders had lost three straight games, and although a playoff spot was right there, one would think by watching them that they were way out of it and playing just to play.
Heading into the game against the Penguins, Islanders head coach Lane Lambert decided to switch up his lines.
Lambert also dropped Josh Bailey on the depth chart, not calling the move a demotion.
“You move certain people around […] There’s no demotion, so to speak, or anything like that,” Lambert said. “His value is his value, and he’s very valuable in all different situations.”
Zach Parise took Lee’s spot on the second line, reuniting him with Palmieri, as the two played together for quite some time last season and to start this year before Palmieri’s injuries.
Like we saw in Tuesday’s 3-2 shootout loss to the Ottawa Senators, Lambert relied heavily on his top-six forwards in the Penguins win, and while their start, the first 30 minutes, was brutal, his top players raised their game, and his new line combinations paid dividends.
Lee scored two goals in the game, his first one tying the contest in the first and his second one coming with 28 seconds to play in the second, to cut the Islanders deficit to 4-3 heading into the third.
That second goal served as the turning point for New York.
“I thought he was good. I thought he was moving. Obviously he’s going to the net, and he got rewarded for it, but I thought he played well,” Lambert said. “It’s not just the two goals. Were obviously very happy with those, but I thought he played well overall.”
The line of Lee-Horvat-Barzal played 16:19 minutes in the win, outscoring the Penguins 2-1.
“I think all three of us bring some good qualities to the table, and I thought we had a strong evening,” Lee said.
Parise, who skated in his 1200th NHL game, came through big time for New York, as he got a piece of the puck with 2:43 to play to give the Islanders a 5-4 lead off a pass from Nelson.
“Feels great for everybody. Really. With the standings with the way things are right now, it was a great win,” Parise said.
Nelson’s line played 13:19 minutes, outscoring the Penguins 1-0.
The drop-off from the first two lines to the other lines is a big one, with the Matt Martin-Casey Cizikas-Hudson Fasching line playing just 4:22 minutes. That wasn’t even a line Lambert started with, but as we have seen recently, he took a few players out of the rotation.
All line stats are courtesy of Naturalstatrick.com.
Andy Andreoff, who was playing in place of Jean-Gabriel Pageau, centering the fourth line, played just 5:04 at even strength. Simon Holmstrom played 6:22.
Bailey played just 6:46, leaving with an injury of some sort in the closing minutes of the second period.
Although Lambert doesn’t have an issue riding his top-six, he did make a note that it’s not ideal.
“We’d like to roll four lines a little bit more. But, you know, the situation presents itself some nights,” Lambert said. “They didn’t use their fourth line a whole lot tonight, and we matched up against their guys. So like I say, it’s circumstantial.”
While that makes sense, the Islanders were down heading into the third, and one can’t help but think he would have cut his bench regardless of who Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan was throwing out there, with their being a need for offense.
Now the Islanders face the Boston Bruins, and the question becomes, can momentum be carried over, and can their top players come through against the strongest team in the NHL?
One of the Islanders biggest issues this season has been the ability to build off big wins, but if there was ever a time, it’s right now.
Although the Bruins have just two regulation losses at home and three extra-time defeats, the Islanders had some success against them last time they were in Boston on Dec. 13.
It was a 4-3 shootout loss, but it was a game in which the Islanders outplayed them in regulation but made a few mistakes that the Bruins capitalized on.
The Bruins have gone 2-1-0 since returning from the All-Star break, shutting out the Nashville Predators 5-0 on Thursday night.
If the Islanders play like they did to start the game against the Penguins, the Bruins will have a field day.
But if the Islanders get in on the forecheck early and get to their game, and play with the same desperation, they will give themselves a fighting chance.
A point over Boston would be big, but two points would be a tremendous boost heading into a rematch with the Penguins on Monday night in Pittsburgh.
The Islanders are currently tied with the Penguins, point-wise, with 63, but the flightless birds have played four fewer games, so the Islanders sit in the second wild-card spot. The Washington Capitals are a point behind the Islanders, with one game in hand heading into Saturday’s games.
The Penguins and Capitals both play Saturday, but the Islanders need to focus on their game as they control their own destiny.
Yes, the games in hand are out of their control. But if the New York Islanders find a way to build on their win against Pittsburgh and make some noise this weekend in Boston, that helps counteract the three brutal losses to Canadian teams last week.