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Why the New York Islanders Can Still Win the Eastern Conference Finals

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Barry Trotz Islanders at Devils

By Tom Callahan
Special to NYI Hockey Now

As the New York Islanders trail 3-1 in the Eastern Conference Finals with the Tampa Bay Lightning, it looks like a tall order to mount a comeback against those odds but it can be done.

Tampa Bay looks like they’re on a roll, getting contributions from everyone and finding great goaltending. But I’ve seen what a Barry Trotz coached team can accomplish firsthand, and I know they’re never out of a series.

For those who may not know, I spent five years as the radio voice of the Nashville Predators, watching Trotz guide those teams to finishes many people did not expect. Getting to know him personally over the course of time, I found a coach who genuinely cared about his players and staff. Someone who could treat players like sons or skate them like they stole his family fortune.

Trotz adjusted his systems and style to the talent he had on hand, looking to wring every last ounce of potential out of his roster.

Offside Tavern Takes One Last Shift with Islanders Playoff Run

There are many teams he coached, especially in the Nashville years, that could easily be labeled “overachievers” because of him. Translation: When guys buy into the system it brings them success. And because of the person and coach Trotz is, he gets that commitment.

Now that Barry Trotz has won a Stanley Cup and a Jack Adams award, it’s a little harder to say he’s under-appreciated. But I still believe there are many people out there who don’t realize how good of a coach he is.

For many years the knock against him was he couldn’t coach superstars. Then, the guy the press would have voted “Most Likely to Never Win a Cup” in high school – Alex Ovechkin – does just that under Trotz’s tutelage. I watched him walk with Alex Radulov in a hotel in Glendale and have a hard conversation with Radulov about how he wasn’t going to play that night for going clubbing the night before. This was in the playoffs no less.

I couldn’t help but think about how much the conversation resembled that of how a father would talk to his son. Not everyone loves their coach or his decisions, but Trotz does what he thinks is best for the team and doesn’t try to sugar coat it.

When it comes to the Islanders, they resemble in many ways some of those great Predators teams of yesteryear. Stars that might have only barely been recognized or remembered out of the market. Workmanlike goaltending duos. A focus on defense, forcing mistakes and capitalizing on those chances when you get them. In fact, because they play this style of game the New York Islanders have a tremendous chance to come back against a Tampa Bay team that is so freewheeling offensively.

While it hasn’t always gone according to plan so far in the series, when the Islanders are most effective they’re:

Disrupting the neutral zone.

Forechecking effectively/aggressively

Winning board battles.

The neutral zone is much like the middle of the board in chess. Control it and you control the flow of the game. You force your opponent to attack from the outside which is much harder to do.

You also are able to mount your attacks and counterattacks right through the most option-laden portion of the playing surface.

For the Islanders, that means not allowing Tampa Bay forwards to build speed through that area and also taking away passing lanes to open up the other side of the ice. It also means not allowing the speed to back you down through the neutral zone and collapse on your goaltender defensively, giving too much time and space on zone entries and allowing the Lightning to create more opportunities. Trotz knows this is a critical area and uses his forwards to pressure the players coming through the neutral zone, hoping to force a premature dump-in, bad pass, or a straight-up turnover at center ice.

Barzal, Lee, Eberle Looking for Production with Islanders on the Brink | NYHN+

This segues right into the forecheck because if you are hurrying the defenseman’s first pass up the ice on a breakout, the forwards who normally help clog the neutral zone can quickly activate to pressure the breakout. It can also put pressure on the goaltender to handle the puck and lead to miscues on the back end that way.

If you can frustrate teams into trying for stretch passes and long-range dump-ins because of pressure, you’re giving yourself plenty of extra puck possession and countering the speed of Tampa.

Though I listed it third, board battles are really the most important thing here. You have to work hard and come out of the pile with the puck in all three zones to win games.

Forcing a battle in the offensive zone thanks to your forecheck can generate a turnover and a quick scoring chance. Neutral zone tie-ups can lead to quick counterstrikes as well, perhaps catching Tampa Bay in a change or flat-footed for odd-man situations.

In the defensive zone, it’s hard to overstate how critical these battles are. Winning possession allows you to thwart scoring threats and also buys you just that second of a breather, so important when the intensity is high.

These three keys are hallmarks of a Barry Trotz coached team, and I believe the Islanders have shown they are extremely capable of shutting down any attack when they out-hustle the opponent. With their season on the line, it’s time for New York to bring its “A” game to stay alive and perhaps eventually win this series.

I’ve always said that Barry Trotz makes the best chicken salad – you’ll have to fill in the rest of the euphemism for yourself. Time for the Isles to get back in the kitchen.

Welcome to your new home for New York Islanders breaking news, analysis and opinion. Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and don't forget to subscribe to NYHN+ for all of our members-only content from Christian Arnold and the National Hockey Now network.

New York Islanders

Rosner: Play of Jean-Gabriel Pageau Integral in Islanders Victory Over Devils

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Jean-Gabriel Pageau

The New York Islanders did not put their best skate forward in their 2-1 victory over the New Jersey Devils last night. Goaltender Semyon Varlamov was brilliant and Oliver Wahlstrom shined yet again.

But the play of a center Jean-Gabriel Pageau caught my attention.

Whether it was winning a defensive-zone faceoff, laying a hit, or scoring a big goal, Pageau seemed to always do something that positively impacted the game for the Islanders night in and night out. Pageau has been red-hot as of late and that trend continued on Tuesday.

The 28-year old forward finished the game with an assist, four shots on goal, four blocks, and one steal to cap off his impressive performance. Pageau helped the Islanders get on the board first when he helped spring Wahlstrom with a pass that led to the game’s first goal.

Unfortunately, Pageau’s outlet pass did not make the highlight reel. What also failed to make the cut was his positioning in his own zone. It allowed him to pick up a loose puck following a Nick Leddy mishandle before feeding his linemate with ease.

On that goal, Jean-Gabriel Pageau recorded his 100th career NHL assist, which came in career-game number 457. His ability to make simple plays such as that pass makes him the perfect linemate for Wahlstrom, who currently finds himself on a five-game point streak.

After the game, Wahlstrom was asked about the growing confidence he has displayed over the last couple of weeks. He attributed that boost to his teammates.

While he did not specifically mention his linemate, we all know how integral Pageau’s play has been to his growth at the NHL level.

“I’m kind of falling in love with the details of my game, the little details,” Wahlstrom said. “I feel like that’s helping. It’s bringing me more enjoyment to the game, and I’m thinking less about production and everything. I’m just focusing on the little details.”

The big takeaway is that Wahlstrom is thinking less. I attribute some of that to the ease that comes with playing alongside Pageau. When you can rely on a linemate to make those big plays to get you the puck or cover back on defense when you make a mistake, it allows you to focus on your game.

Wahlstrom does not have to worry about every little detail when he is on the ice with no. 44.

New York Islanders Proving Patience Works with Young Stars Wahlstrom, Dobson, Sorokin

Besides dishing pucks to his teammate, Jean-Gabriel Pageau had opportunities to score as well throughout the contest. All four of his shots on New Jersey netminder Aaron Dell came in-tight, with three of them being considered high danger scoring chances. But Dell answered the call with his glove each time.

The Ottawa native contributed to 54.57-percent of the Islanders scoring chances when he was on the ice according to Natural Stat Trick.

Even though he only won 47.6-percent of his draws tonight, Pageau was called upon to take nine defensive zone draws. While that percentage is not available, it shows how much his coach believes in him to come up with those big wins. And in a tight game, like we saw last night, key wins in the defensive zone are monumental to the result on the scoreboard. Pageau won 40-percent of his offensive draws, which matched his highest mark over his last eight games.

Jean-Gabriel Pageau is not just an offensive player by any means.

Many questions loomed following his arrival about his ability to fit into the defensive system head coach Barry Trotz had in place. However, Pageau’s style has fit perfectly into the system due to his awareness and positioning in his own zone.

New Jersey did not generate one high danger chance on Varlamov when Pageau’s skates were on the ice.

Being a penalty killer was a notable trait for Jean-Gabriel Pageau before joining the Islanders and that skill was on display last night in the win. It has been on display this whole season.  He helped the Islanders kill off three of the four Devil power plays, as he would have been out there for the fourth power-play opportunity had he not been the one serving the two minutes.

Pageau played 1:07 minutes on the penalty kill tonight.

To end the game, Pageau took the final faceoff at center ice after the Devils scored with 14 seconds remaining on the clock to make it a 2-1 game. Due to his awareness and hockey IQ, he pushed the puck forward to eliminate any chance of a puck coming into the Islanders’ zone.

It was a beautiful way for him to end a strong showing in New Jersey.

Welcome to your new home for New York Islanders breaking news, analysis and opinion. Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and don't forget to subscribe to NYHN+ for all of our members-only content from Christian Arnold and the National Hockey Now network.
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New York Islanders

Islanders’ Special Teams Delivers Again in Win Over Devils

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Islanders and Devils

In what was an overall low-event hockey game, the New York Islanders’ gritted their way to a 2-1 win over the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday night at Prudential Center.

Goals — and shots — were both at a premium and the Islanders were up to the task even after New Jersey grabbed control in the second period.

While the Islanders’ power-play thrived in February and now has them 12th overall in the league (24.6 percent success rate), it was the penalty killers that staved off the Devils barrage in the middle period.

It was subsequent minors to Ryan Pulock and Cal Clutterbuck that put the Islanders in a precarious 5-on-3 situation in a then-scoreless game. Just off those two penalties New Jersey generated six shots on net, all saved by netminder Semyon Varlamov. But it was Varlamov who took a rare penalty with a tripping halfway through the period and put the Islanders a man short for two minutes.

In that stretch, Varlamov didn’t have to do much work, making one save on Damon Severson from the right circle before the penalty expired.

Even with all of the time on the penalty kill, the Islanders limited the number of Grade-A chances from New Jersey during those sequences. In fact, New Jersey did not register a single high danger chance for at all through the first two periods of the game and only could muster one entirely over 60 minutes.

“Oh it’s huge,” Nick Leddy said of the penalty killing unit. “[The PK] have been great all year. I try and do my best that I can when I get in, but they’ve been a huge staple for us all year and it creates momentum — I believe — for us and takes a little bit of momentum away from the power play.”

Islanders-Devils heat map

As you can see from the heat map from Natural Stat Trick, the Islanders did a good job protecting the net and crease areas and largely contained New Jersey to the perimeter. Even despite the total Corsi disadvantage, the Islanders held a 7-1 edge in high danger chances. Thanks to all the power plays and total chances, the Devils had an astronomical 88.09 expected goals percentage. But thanks to a few key saves by Varlamov and a general lack of wide-open looks, the Islanders penalty kill remained intact.

“How you manage their best, it might be for half a period, it might be five minutes, it might be a couple of shifts, if you don’t manage them very well you probably give up too much,” Barry Trotz said. “Then you’re chasing the game a little bit. We’re learning to manage our not-so-good moments and we’re taking advantage of our good moments.”

It was much of the same on New Jersey’s last power-play try in the third, which actually resulted in the Islanders getting the only shot on goal during Jean-Gabriel Pageau’s tripping minor.

For a team that’s not going to generally get into a track meet, the Islanders bread-and-butter game comes down to good positional play and being opportunistic on special teams. Since they’ve found a groove this year, that’s been the tried and true formula. After Tuesday’s night’s near shutout, the Islanders rank eighth in the NHL in PK percentage (82.8) and seventh in PK net (86.2 percent)

It was two power-play goals that lifted the Islanders to a win Sunday against the Pittsburgh Penguins, but it was the other side of the coin that helped get them a win in New Jersey.

Welcome to your new home for New York Islanders breaking news, analysis and opinion. Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and don't forget to subscribe to NYHN+ for all of our members-only content from Christian Arnold and the National Hockey Now network.
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New York Islanders

CAUSE FOR CONCERN? Islanders React to News Crosby Placed on COVID List

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Sidney Crosby vs New York Islanders

While the New York Islanders were holding their pregame media availability on Tuesday, word was spreading that Sidney Crosby would be placed on the NHL COVID protocol list.

The Pittsburgh Penguins also canceled their morning skate on Tuesday as part of the COVID-19 protocols. They are still scheduled to face the Philadelphia Flyers.

The Islanders hosted Pittsburgh on Sunday at the Nassau Coliseum, where they defeated their Steel City rival 2-0. Michael Dal Colle was the only Islanders player made available to the media prior to their game with New Jersey on Tuesday and had been unaware of the developments prior to stepping to the podium.

“That’s news to me. I wasn’t aware of that,” Dal Colle said when asked by a reporter for a reaction to the news. “Obviously with the COVID protocols, I don’t know if the league is going to step in or something like that. We can only focus on what we’re doing here. We’re ready for a game tonight and it’s a big one.”

Being placed on the COVID protocol list does not mean that a player has tested positive and there are a variety of reasons why one would end up on the list.

The Islanders have managed to keep their team COVID free since the start of the season. Josh Bailey was briefly placed on the COVID protocol list last month after his son received a false-positive result.

The only direct impact that the virus has had on the team this season was in February when a pair of games against the Buffalo Sabres were postponed and rescheduled due to an outbreak on Buffalo.

Welcome to your new home for New York Islanders breaking news, analysis and opinion. Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and don't forget to subscribe to NYHN+ for all of our members-only content from Christian Arnold and the National Hockey Now network.
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