It’s not just hype anymore – the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs are here.
The New York Islanders began Round 1 against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday night at Nassau Coliseum. Looking like a completely different team, the Isles started the game like a bullet from a gun. Immediately in the Penguins zone, Tom Kuhnhackl put the puck in the net just 33 seconds after the opening faceoff. The play was deemed offside, but Jordan Eberle put it right back in a minute later. After the Islanders dominated the first ten minutes of play, the Penguins found their skates and made it an exhilarating end-to-end game. Still, the Isles were constantly in control. The abysmal power play even scored for the first time in months at the Coliseum. The game went into the first overtime, but Barzal and Bailey found a way to win.
Tonight, the Isles and Pens battle out Game 2. If the Isles want to win the next necessary three games, everyone is going to have to step up and play the best games of their lives. Here’s a list of players who should be, or need to be, especially hot in the coming weeks.
That Kid Who Won the Calder had a somewhat quiet year. Don’t be fooled – Mat Barzal has some of the best numbers on the team with 62 points (18 G, 44 A). He leads the Islanders in both assists and points this year, but that’s still 23 points shy of his totals last year when he had 85 points (22 G, 63 A). Under Barry Trotz team-first, defensive-minded regime, Barzal’s totals went on the back-burner as he became a stronger play-maker. Although he’s spent more time on the ice this year (about ten seconds more per game), his shot percentage has gone down (almost 3% less). His primary line (Bailey-Barzal-Beauvillier) was inconsistent and largely unproductive, but his secondary line (Barzal-Eberle-Lee) got red-hot at the end of the regular season. It’s also important to note that he was the most productive member of the Islanders’ terrible power play, accruing 18 power play points (3 G, 15 A).
As this is his first time in the playoffs, expect Barzal to be ready. Every interview he’s given in the last two weeks, he’s talked a lot about the emotion and the intensity of the playoffs – how he lives for it, is excited for it, loves feeling it in the locker room. He may play like a veteran, but Barzal still feels the rookie playoff hype. Though he didn’t get a goal on Wednesday night, he did get the overtime assist. He should come alive in the coming games.
Of everyone on this Islanders team who needed to prove people wrong, Anders Lee arguably had the most to prove. Given the captaincy before the first game of the season, it suddenly became his responsibility above all to see the season through. After Tavares disgracefully left the team in a lurch, Lee stepped up and proved himself. He widened his game, advocated with the referees, and actively analyzed footage and plays on the bench. He also had some of the best power play numbers with 16 points (10 G, 6 A). Despite the media claiming he would fall flat without Tavares on his line, he led the team in goals and came within two goals of a third consecutive 30-goal season. His final numbers were 51 points (28 G, 23A), and he finished the year +20.
This is also only Lee’s second playoff series. Scratched throughout the 2015-16 playoffs, Lee only hit the ice for five games of the 2014-15 series against Washington. This year, Lee still has to prove himself. He didn’t get a goal on Wednesday, but he did get an assist. Everything from the regular season still applies: He’s a better captain and a play-maker, and he’s going to show it against Pittsburgh.
Similar to Barzal’s situation, Jordan Eberle had a quiet year. Last year, he scored 59 points (25 G, 34 A), but this year, he only scored 37 points (19 G, 18 A). He was a single goal shy of his sixth consecutive 20-goal season, but he was the third most productive player on the power play with 12 points (7 G, 5 A). Playing alongside Lee, Nelson, and Barzal throughout the season, it’s surprising that Eberle didn’t score more, but he did start a scoring streak during the last 11 games of the regular season with 7 points (6 G, 1 A), two of them goals in the amazing comeback against the Winnipeg Jets. When the team needed it the most to clinch playoffs and home ice, Eberle stepped up.
Now that the Isles are in the playoffs, Eberle stepped up again, scoring the first official goal of the series and getting an assist. Eberle has also only been to the playoffs once in his career with the Edmonton Oilers in the 2016-17 season. Overall that year, he played 13 games and had 2 assists. Combining the Isles’ drive to prove people wrong, his hot streak to end the season, and his personal playoffs drought, Eberle seems due. Here’s hoping he breaks out in the playoffs and leads the Islanders past the Penguins.
Although he’s only played 36 games this season, Tom Kuhnhackl has 9 points (4 G, 5 A). They’re not the highest numbers, but they’re not the lowest either. His career high is 15 points (5 G, 10 A), which he established in his debut season with Pittsburgh in 2015-2016 when he played 42 games. Kuhnhackl is a solid third line play-maker, not a goal-scorer. He hits hard and chases pucks. Even with his lack of consistent ice time this year, Kuhnhackl never backed down. Every time he steps on the ice, he plays his heart out, and it shows. In the last several games of the regular season, he was noticeable on the ice. Only playing because Andrew Ladd, Valteri Filppula, and Tanner Fritz are all hurt, he looked as if he was a standard, vital player regardless.
Now in a playoff series against his former team, he’s still not backing down. The ex-Penguin was the first to put the puck in the net on Wednesday night. It didn’t count since Matt Martin was offside, but the message rang clear anyway: “You gave me up? Your loss.” Like Lee, Kuhnhackl has a lot to prove in this playoffs series, and he’s embracing it. Wednesday night looked like the hardest he’s played all season, and fans can count on him keeping it up.
Ryan Pulock was a leader among the defensemen this year with his 37 points (9 G, 28 A) and his +21 rating. Playing a full season for the first time in his career and averaging more than 20 minutes per game, he cemented his place among the Islanders’ top defensemen going forward. His success is one of the reasons Thomas Hickey has dropped out of the regular roster; he and Toews are simply too good to replace, even with the Islanders’ previous top defenseman. Pulock has more than proven himself this year with 143 hits and 148 blocked shots. He’s shown that he’s strong on and fearless of the puck. He’s also trigger-happy, taking 180 shots overall this year and getting 3 goals and 6 assists on the Islanders’ atrocious power play.
Pulock’s shot has been compared to Shea Weber’s several times; it’s a real rocket, and if Pulock improved his accuracy, it could be a real weapon. Here’s hoping that shot is deployed to its fullest, most accurate extent in the playoffs. Besides his offensive abilities, Pulock displayed his defensive intelligence on Wednesday. At one point, the puck slid under Robin Lehner, but Pulock was there, plugging up the five-hole with his stick. A successful playoffs run is certainly in his future.
Not the most widely appreciated Islander in the last few seasons, Adam Pelech has been winning fans over in the second half of the regular season. His numbers aren’t far behind Pulock’s. He has 21 points (5 G, 16 A) and a +22 rating. Although he has no power play points, he’s attempted a total of 218 shots and averages almost 19 minutes per game. He’s also only taken 24 penalty minutes all season. Though he still makes some sloppy plays, Pelech is turning into a solid, top defenseman. Like Pulock, he’s has cemented his place in the Islanders’ defensive core.
Pelech is another player primed for a break out playoffs series. Not only did he bring his grit and physicality, but he also got an assist on Wednesday night. Like Eberle and Kuhnhackl, he’s arriving at the playoffs with a recent stretch of good, productive games under his belt. If he brings the same consistency to the coming games, he should win several more fans over very quickly.
Thomas Greiss & Robin Lehner
With the season these goalies had, there shouldn’t be any question as to why Thomas Greiss and Robin Lehner deserve attention. The William Jennings Trophy winners each had an amazing season. Together, they kept the Islanders’ goals against total to only 191, the best among the League this season. That total is 102 goals fewer than last year, giving the Islanders an NHL record: the best turn around between two seasons, going from worst to first one year after the other. Playing in 43 games this year, Greiss won 23, posting 5 shutouts, a save percentage of .927 and a goals against average of 2.28. Playing in 46 games, Lehner won 25, posting 6 shutouts, a save percentage of .930 and a goals against average of 2.13.
Lehner got the start on Wednesday, and he was solid for his team. He let in only 3 goals on 44 shots and kept the Penguins from scoring on two of their three power plays. He never lost his composure, even when the Penguins continued to whack at him after he froze the puck or when the Penguins tied the game with three minutes to go. No matter who gets the net in Game 2 tonight, the Isles can depend on their goaltending.
Anthony Beauvillier: Like Barzal, Anthony Beauvillier had a quiet, streaky season. He got a hat trick against the New York Rangers but didn’t shine otherwise. Perhaps the playoffs buzz will start a fire for him and propel him toward the numbers he was expected to produce.
Casey Cizikas: A long-time under-appreciated MVP, Casey Cizikas’s career highs sky-rocketed this season. His scoring phenomenon more or less came to halt in the last third of the season, but there shouldn’t be any doubts about his value or possibilities anymore. If he could notch 20 goals in the regular season, what can he do in the playoffs?
Brock Nelson: Formerly known for his “Brock-tober and slump” tendency, Brock Nelson had a breakout season. Like Pelech, he won over a lot of fans with his solid dependability all year. A team leader in goals this season, he should post some high numbers in the playoffs, too.
Devon Toews: He looks like a veteran, so it’s hard to remember most days that Devon Toews started this season in the ECHL, working off shoulder surgery. After taking Hickey’s spot on the roster and never looking back, Devon Toews had an amazing season and already has an assist in the playoffs.
Scott Mayfield: With 19 points (4 G, 15 A) and a +18 rating, Scott Mayfield knows how to set up plays. He’s yet another solid, young defenseman in the Islanders’ core, and should create some good chances in the playoffs.
Featured Image: Dennis Schneidler/USA Today *All statistics courtesy of hockey-reference and frozenpool.