The Achilles heel of the New York Islanders this season has been their defensive-zone struggles. While their goals-against average currently sits fourth in the entire NHL, having allowed just 2.33 goals per game, the lack of awareness from defenseman, but more often than not from the forwards, has been concerning.
Several Islanders have fallen victim to critical mistakes in their own zone and that has seen the team leave points on the table.
Flashback to last Thursday’s 4-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, where this exact type of mistake cost the Islanders twice that night. First, Teddy Blueger took advantage of this exact type of mistake to give his team a 2-0 lead.
Besides Josh Bailey getting caught flat-footed with Mike Matheson, the Islanders failed to guard Blueger’s backdoor for the easy tap-in.
Can we please talk about Matheson's give-and-go to himself? pic.twitter.com/F5UBTqakZu
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) February 19, 2021
The Penguins took a 3-0 lead in the third period as Jason Zucker netted a perfect pass from Bryan Rust. But, again, an Islanders’ forward lost his man which led to the goal. Kieffer Bellows was the culprit on this one and he has yet to be in the lineup since this game.
However, one Islander that has garnered my attention for his defensive abilities so far this season has been Jordan Eberle, who has seen time on both the first and second line this season. Eberle has had to be responsible in his own zone to help counteract his teammate’s mistakes.
It seems game in and game out, Eberle has been making those plays that will never show up on replay, but are game-changing moments. Eberle has coughed up the puck five times on the season, but has six takeaways to go along with nine blocks.
His advanced statistics show that when he is on the ice, the puck finds its way into the net more than it should (11 XGA, 8.78 GA). It also shows an expected plus/minus of plus-1 higher than his current plus/minus of minus-2. But we have to remember that this is a team sport.
The players around him dictate these stats. Mathew Barzal has made his fair share of defensive zone mistakes this season, and while Eberle was on the second line, he has seen Brock Nelson make similar errors in his own end.
Take those stats with a grain of salt, as Jordan Eberle has passed the eye test with flying colors.
In Monday night’s win over the Sabres, Eberle was phenomenal in his own zone. In the first period, we saw Eberle backcheck hard, something he has done all year long. While the act of backchecking is just not nearly enough at the NHL level, It’s what Eberle does when he gets back in his zone that is the difference.
Jordan Eberle can sneakily lift sticks and disrupt the puck carrier, whether it be physically by knocking the puck off the opposition’s stick or mentally forcing the player to overthink, which may lead to an errant pass, as we saw Monday night.
During the second period on Monday, Eberle batted down a Sabres pass in his own zone. He kept his stick moving from side to side and he was ready for whatever side defenseman Matt Irwin tried to feed the puck to.
It is the little things like that that can positively impact the game.
Throughout the final period and a half, Eberle kept looking over his shoulder to make sure his man did not evade him in the defensive zone. By doing this, he protected the slot rather nicely.
What we saw in the game Monday was not a one-time thing. This is how Eberle has played the whole season.
Players like Barzal and others need to look at Eberle’s work ethic in their zone and try to find a way to mimic his success. If the Islanders can learn to make fewer mistakes in their own end, they will give themselves a higher chance at collecting two points on a nightly basis.