Time to let Islanders’ top-heavy 1st line pave way toward playoff push | Op-ed

Brock Nelson Barzal Islanders
(AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Overtime has been an all-too-familiar situation for the New York Islanders this season, and usually, they have wound up on the wrong side of it.

Twenty of their games had gone into an extra period or a shootout and they lost 14 of them — results that have been pivotal in the team’s current standing of being on the outside of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. 

But on Monday night in overtime of a 2-2 game in Dallas against the Central Division-leading Stars and with New York having lost two straight and five of its last seven, All-Star winger Mathew Barzal took things into his own hands.

Receiving the puck in the defensive zone, he meandered through the neutral zone and into the Dallas Zone where his trademark skating ability allowed him to list around the attacking area for seven seconds.

In total, he had the puck on his stick for 11 uninterrupted seconds and it wound up with him feeding Bo Horvat in the slot for the game-winning, one-timer goal that delivered the Islanders a vital two points. 

“It’s about time one went in there with all the chances we had tonight,” Horvat said (h/t Islanders official site).

Islanders Bo Horvat Stars
New York Islanders center Bo Horvat (14) celebrates after his overtime winning goal with teammate Mike Reilly (2) in an NHL hockey game against the Dallas Stars in Dallas, Monday, Feb. 26, 2024. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

Horvat had seven shots on goal in the victory, most of them coming on a new-look top line where head coach Patrick Roy promoted the team’s leading scorer, Brock Nelson, from second-line center to left-wing on the top unit to join Horvat and Barzal.

The trio combined to put 13 of the Islanders’ 28 shots that night on net with an abundance of early promise being shown.

“It was a little different. I tried not to think,” Nelson said. “You find yourself in some different spots, a little bit of a different look, but I just tried to read off Bo and Barzy — more so off Bo because we’re a little more interchangeable on the left side.”

The win moved the Islanders (62 points) to within five points of the Philadelphia Flyers, who possess the third and final non-wild-card playoff spot in the Metropolitan Division — a spot that a team that possesses this sort of skill simply should not be in.

Islanders Mathew Barzal Coyotes Bo Horvat
(AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

But this certainly seems like this has to be the formula that Roy needs to stick with to try and get the Islanders back on track toward a playoff push: Put your best players together to make one overwhelming, lethal attacking unit and let the depth pieces that the organization has accrued and gushed over for years enjoy the trickle-down effect of the openings that are created by it.

A new-look third line of Casey Cizikas, Simon Holmstrom, and Pierre Engvall were on the ice for defenseman Ryan Pulock’s opening goal in the first period. Fourth-line center Kyle MacLean, working with Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck, snuck off the bench as a trailer to poach a loose puck home to give New York its second in the second period.

Promising results for Roy, who finally made dramatic changes to the lineup and stuck with it for the first time since taking over for Lane Lambert in late January. 

“Every line brought something,” Roy said. “The line with MacLean, Martin, and Clutterbuck, they played a solid game. They forechecked well, they got the puck out… I thought Engvall had a super game. He played well, he was skating well, he was dominant out there.”

That doesn’t happen if the star-studded top line isn’t together to garner the majority of the attention from Dallas’ top defensive units. In theory, that unit is only going to get better the more time they spend together — at least that’s what Horvat is expecting.

“It’s going to continue to keep getting better, gaining confidence and trusting each other out there,” he said. “I think we could sustain a little bit more O-zone pressure but for the most part, we had our looks tonight, and we have to continue to grow on that.”

For more on the Islanders, visit AMNY.com