Nothing like being thrown from the fryer into the fire.
Jean-Gabriel Pageau made his New York Islanders debut on Tuesday night at Nassau Coliseum and his first taste of life in blue and orange was a rivalry tilt with the Rangers — arguably the largest matchup between the two teams in recent years.
And he announced his presence grandly, recording two-thirds of a Gordie Howe hat trick in the 4-3 overtime loss.
“Obviously a great atmosphere and a great welcome from the fans. I really appreciate it,” Pageau said. “I think it’s great motivation. I thought everyone tonight showed a lot of character… I’m happy to be a part of it.”
Pageau — who was acquired on Monday just hours before the NHL trade deadline from the Ottawa Senators for draft picks — did exactly what he was brought in to do, scoring a goal in his debut.
Down 2-0 late in the second, a Ryan Pulock slapshot whizzed over the Rangers’ goal and off the glass, falling to a wide-open Pageau, who tapped the puck home while the unsuspecting Rangers defense and goaltender, Alexandar Georgiev searched for the puck.
“It was just a lucky bounce,” Pageau said. “I thought we were doing a really solid job putting pucks on the net all game, trying to create traffic in front of the goalie.”
The next period, after Michael Dal Colle was leveled by Jacob Trouba, Pageau dropped the gloves in defense of a teammate he had met just a day earlier.
As the third man in, Pageau drew an instigator penalty along with his fighting major, racking up 17 total penalty minutes that ended his night before the Islanders’ frantic last-minute comeback from two goals down to salvage a point.
“It’s a bad pass from me and I think the way that the guys welcomed me here, I’m sure someone would’ve stepped up for me,” Pageau said. “I thought it was a high hit and that’s why I did it. I care about the guys here already and I’m lucky to be part of a group like this.”
Needless to say, there’s no question of how Pageau fits into the Islanders system. Billed as a two-way player, he’s perfect for head coach Barry Trotz’s system thanks to a strong defensive game and presence in the face-off circle.
He won 71% of his face-offs against the Rangers on Tuesday night, further gaining the respect of his teammates.
“We knew he was a real character guy. Aside from what he brings on the ice, we knew that he would fit right into our locker room and tonight was a great first impression. I think a lot of us are fans of the way he plays. He plays a real complete game and it was a lot of fun to play with him.
It’s a promising start to an Islanders career that could have as many as six years remaining after signing a lengthy extension following Monday’s trade.
His acquisition was the team’s largest trade-deadline move in over a decade and the largest trade pulled off by Lou Lamoriello since taking over the team in 2018.
“I think it’s huge. It’s a statement not only to the group but to the fans,” Trotz said. “The one thing I thought we did a really good job organizationally is that we identified the one player we wanted and we went and got him. And we got him for a while. We came here to restore all the pride that the Island has and we want to win a Cup. We’ll do anything to do that.”
In need of a scoring boost, Pageau’s 25 goals on the season made him the Islanders’ leading scorer while his 41 points rank third.
He also will give the Islanders one of the best depth charts at the center position in hockey alongside first-line center Mathew Barzal, second-liner Brock Nelson, and fourth-liner Casey Cizikas once he returns to full health.
“You saw the character, you saw how he plays, his smarts, all that,” Trotz said. “He’s going to be impactful for us, I’m glad he’s on our side.”