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Islanders optimism increasing as lineup finally nears full strength

Mathew Barzal Islanders
Islanders center Mathew Barzal
Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Consistency is the ever-important cliché of hockey, as it is in most sports. It’s something that the New York Islanders have currently been searching for all season and — COVID and injuries be damned — they appear to be on the cusp of getting a much-needed semblance of that. 

The Islanders are in the middle of a 12-day break which is the latest lengthy hiatus the team has had to contend with. By the time they take the ice on Jan. 13 against the New Jersey Devils, it will be just their third game in 25 days as the COVID surge forced the NHL to scramble its schedule.

With as many as 16 players and coaches sidelined due to the virus — and a few more out because of injuries — the Islanders have been stuck piecing together a lineup with duct tape and crazy glue. They’ve been forced to dress 31 different skaters through 28 games this season. Only the Washington Capitals have dressed more and they’ve played six more games than New York.

“That stretch we went through was tough,” Islanders star center Mathew Barzal said. “Everyone was moving around… I had new wingers every night… It was just a blender every night. Sometimes, it’s tough to get that chemistry to click right away.”

At one point toward the end of November, the Islanders were down four of their six starting defenseman. They also lost top blueliner Ryan Pulock and second-line center, Brock Nelson, to injury. In December, as soon as they got Mathew Barzal out of COVID protocol, Oliver Wahlstrom, Cal Clutterbuck, Zach Parise, Anthony Beauvillier, and Nelson went in. 

With the constant roster turnover, the Islanders’ offense sagged. They scored just 15 goals during an 11-game losing streak that was only fueled by COVID.

The power play also suffered mightily because of it, converting just 5-of-49 man-advantage opportunities — a league-worst 10.2% — over their first 18 games of the season.

Slowly but surely, the Islanders are returning to full strength as Ryan Pulock is the lone man still out due to a lower-body injury that has nagged him since mid-November. Behind the returning cast of regular characters, the Islanders’ offense has improved.

In their previous 10 games (5-2-3), the Islanders are averaging 3.1 goals per game while their power play is converting at a robust 34.6% (9-for-26).

“That’s obviously key,” Barzal said of getting the regulars back. “Scoring and getting more goals on the board is having a good power play. If you could get one a night on the power play, that’s a kick start.”

It’s an obvious factor to point toward when assessing what has helped the Islanders collect points in nine of their last 11 games as they begin to dig out of their last-place hole in the Metropolitan Division. 

Their chances of getting on a run are only going to increase once they get back on the ice with their full lineup.

“It certainly is something to look forward to,” associate head coach Lane Lambert said. “We haven’t had that. Moving forward, knowing that’s a possibility, that’s exciting. And there’s competition within the group, which is good.”

 

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