The Islanders were lucky to win Monday night, overcoming a territorial advantage by the Philadelphia Flyers and getting away with a 2-1 overtime victory. They were outshot 37-20, with goaltender Ilya Sorokin being named the first star of the game for recording a career-high 36 saves.
Sorokin, who began the season with a 0-2-1 mark and allowed 11 goals over that span, has been beaten just 11 times over his last 8 contests as he pushed his winning streak to 8.
“They were on top of us,” Islanders coach Barry Trotz said post-game. “Even in the offensive zone, they were strong, blocking shots. They were a committed group tonight. When you run into that, you need someone to rise, and I thought Ilya did that for us.”
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“Nobody gave up,” Wahlstrom said. “We all had the mindset that we were going to win this game. We just needed one shot to find an opportunity and we got it.”
There was a lot of strong talk about the team’s comeback from being down 1-0 after two periods. And again, the patience of the Islanders paid off.
“We kind of find ways to get points, do the right things and get rewarded,” Beauvillier said. “I think we have lots of character.”
Barzal In Long Slump
While the Islanders won their second straight and are 8-2 in their last 10 and are atop the East Division, there has to be concern with the team’s best player.
Mathew Barzal simply is not playing like the $7 million player he became at the start of the season with a new contract extension. He has now gone 9 straight games without scoring a goal. He still leads the team in scoring with 9 goals and 16 assists for 25 points, but he is looking lost out there.
With a 56-game schedule, Barzal’s 9-game slump has eaten up almost 20% of the season, so it’s imperative he regain his form soon.
His struggles can be traced in part to the season-ending injury suffered by linemate Anders Lee, who missed his 6th straight game. But Barzal is simply too good and too valuable to have this rut continue for much longer.
With Lee in the lineup, Barzal was getting an average of 2.7 shots on net per game, second on the team to Lee himself.
But since Lee went down with injury six games ago, Barzal’s shots-per-game average has dropped to 1.7 and 6 other Islanders players have more shots than Barzal, who has 10 in the six games since Lee’s absence.
The Islanders offense seems to be just scraping by some nights. Barzal’s scoring touch is needed if the Islanders want to keep pace at the top of the division.
Barzal has one goal for the whole month. His last goal came on March 6 versus the basement-dwelling Buffalo Sabres. But Barzal’s struggles go back further than that.
Prior to the Buffalo game, Barzal had gone three games without a goal. So since the end of February, Barzal has scored one goal in 13 games.
But just in case you think this is a one-off, think again. Last year, Barzal went 14 games without scoring a goal. That slump came oddly at the same time of year. That streak lasted from Feb. 6 to March 3, with the season about to be postponed due to Covid-19.
Skilled players are often streaky. When players like Barzal rediscover their touch, it lifts the entire team. With their captain out for the season, the Islanders seem to lack a take-charge player.
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Signs of Frustration
For the time being, Barzal doesn’t seem to be that player. And he hurts his own cause when he takes dumb penalties, mostly a sign his frustration is boiling over.
Barzal’s impact on the success of the Islanders can’t be overstated. In games that the Islanders lose, Barzal has 1 goal and 2 assists and is a minus-5. In victories, he has 5 goals and 12 assists for 17 points and a plus-15 rating.
For the past few weeks, Barzal is not even getting great looks. He is often going the whole game getting only one or two shots on goal. On Monday, he had one shot on goal.
Barzal isn’t the only elite player in the league to be under pressure to perform.
In Toronto, former Islander captain John Tavares is drawing heat in the media for his sub-standard play. The $11 million star, who scored 47 goals after coming over to Toronto as a free agent three seasons ago, is fifth in goals on the team with 9, but has only 4 at even strength.
He’s being challenged in the media for performing more like a $5 million center, and not an $11 million center. But Tavares has more excuses than Barzal because Tavares is playing on a high-scoring team.
— New York Islanders (@NYIslanders) March 23, 2021
Barzal’s fate rests with the defense-first Islanders, so Barzal is not going to get the same scoring opportunities that other top-line forwards get.
Barzal’s style hurts his game too. He likes to hold the puck, sometimes too long, and go for long skates, and that means he gets tired more. With so many games bunched together, fatigue might be a factor.
Against the Flyers, Barzal was held to 16:51 of ice time when he’s been averaging over 19 minutes a game. It’s also possible he’s hurt and hiding an injury.
But Barzal has to adapt his game too. He remains a marvelous puck-carrier and has speed to burn, but he still has trouble getting to the hard areas of the ice, in front of the net.
When your best player is your goaltender, such as Sorokin was on Monday night, you are not in a good place. Barzal is the best player on the team. He isn’t playing like it at the moment. At some point, he must return to being the best player on the Islanders.
It may take desperate measures. Putting Leo Komarov on his line isn’t the answer.
Perhaps a trade to bring in a complementary piece to get Barzal going again. The Islanders obviously need to replace the scoring and net presence of Anders Lee, and the trade deadline is just around the corner on April 12.
It doesn’t get any easier, with the Islanders facing the Bruins on Thursday night in Boston after the Tuesday game with Boston was postponed due to Covid.
There’s not a lot of time to waste. If Barzal can’t get out of this funk himself, the Islanders must get an elite linemate to help him out.
The way he’s playing, Barzal is not even among the top 5 or 6 Islanders players right now.