Islanders struggling to get Mathew Barzal, Bo Horvat ‘connected’ as season teeters on brink

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Bo Horvat Islanders
New York Islanders’ Bo Horvat plays during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Philadelphia Flyers, Monday, Feb. 6, 2023, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

EAST MEADOW — Islanders head coach Lane Lambert understands that the only way his team can overturn their 3-1 first-round series deficit against the Carolina Hurricanes is to start getting something from their top duo of Mathew Barzal and Bo Horvat.

The two have been limited to just one even-strength goal over the first four games of the series, which came via Barzal in Game 2. It’s his only goal of the playoffs so far while Horvat (shorthanded) has just one following a regular season in which he posted a career-high 38 — mostly with the Vancouver Canucks before a late-January trade to the Islanders.  

“It’s not them individually, it’s the line itself,” Lambert said on Monday before his team set out to Raleigh ahead of Game 5 on Tuesday night. “I think they’ve got to be a little bit more connected, a little bit tighter, to help each other out a little more.”

These are the first games Horvat and Barzal are playing together since mid-February when Barzal went down with a regular-season-ending lower-body injury on Feb. 18 against the Boston Bruins. It’s easy to speculate that might have something to do with it, but Lambert was quick to set the record straight.

“I don’t think it has anything to do with him missing the time he did,” Lambert said. “This series has been even… they play tight. We play tight. You have to have support.”

Mathew Barzal injury
Mathew Barzal (center) (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP)

As two-fifths of the Islanders’ top power-play unit, they’ve generated next to nothing on the man advantage. In fact, the Islanders’ lone goal on 12 power-play opportunities came from the second unit when Kyle Palmieri tipped home what was the game-winner late in the third period of Game 3 at UBS Arena. 

“We’ve been doing a lot of good things but it’s been a lot of perimeter stuff,” Horvat said. “We can get to the blue paint a little bit more and maybe not try to be as fancy and try to get more pucks and bodies toward the net. We’re not creating enough havoc there.”

But the Islanders’ lack of discipline hasn’t helped Horvat and Barzal find much momentum, either. Over the first four games of the series, New York has committed 17 penalties. Five of those have resulted in Carolina goals while Barzal and Horvat have sat on the bench.

“We have to find ways to stay out of the box and get our line out there more consistently,” Horvat said. “It’s a matter of keeping the momentum. The more we get on the ice, the more opportunities we get, the more we feel the puck and we’re not sitting there, waiting for the penalty to be killed. It’s frustrating, but we just got to be more disciplined that way.”

With the 5-on-5 ice time they do get, the two have been tasked with trying to get through an aggressive Hurricanes defense that is headlined by forward Jordan Staal, who is often a matchup nightmare for any top line around the league.

“They’re always smothering you,” Horvat said. “They’re not too worried about the puck, it’s just making sure that we don’t score. Right now, they’re doing that so we have to find a way to figure that out and get some opportunities and get some goals… I can be a lot better, to be honest with you… At the end of the day, I need to find ways to score big goals and get on the scoresheet — not in a 5-1 game, 5-2 game. I have to find a way to make it meaningful.”

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