What the Islanders and their fans feared the most came to a head this morning.
Captain Anders Lee, who got hurt in last Thursdayâ€™s win over New Jersey, is out for the rest of the season with a torn ACL. The latest development comes as a crushing blow for Lee, as he was in the midst of a terrific season where he had already 19 points in 27 games.
Leeâ€™s absence will be felt both on and off the ice. Some will even say it was eminent in last nightâ€™s 3-1 loss to Washington, the Islandersâ€™ first defeat after recording nine straight wins. In that loss to their was a moment in the game that played a pivotal role in the outcome.
Just after the midpoint of the second period with the Isles down one, Mathew Barzal took a needless penalty in the offensive zone when he cross checked Capsâ€™ d-man Nick Jensen. On the ensuing power play, the Islanders went down 2-0 on an Alex Ovechkin bomb and never seemed to recover.
The reason for pointing out that specific sequence is because with Lee sidelined till the start of next season, the Isles must now look to Barzal to be a leader in his place.
— Rob Taub (@RTaub_) March 17, 2021
You can talk all about the veteran leadership the club has with the Josh Baileys, Brock Nelsonâ€™s, Matt Martinâ€™s, etc. But the fact of the matter is Barzal is the Islesâ€™ best player, their most important player and has to be â€œthe guyâ€ moving forward. He has already taken that mantle in some sense with his exceptional play on the ice this year, but this situation with Lee provides an even bigger challenge and maybe a welcoming one at that for the 23-year-old. And it goes beyond the scoresheet.
Barzal made his intentions clear when he signed his new deal in training camp that he wanted to be a team leader. Well now is his chance.
“I think personally, as much as signing a new deal and obviously it’s more than my rookie contract, but my expectation’s the same thing, just give it my best and work hard,” he said when he signed his new deal. “Now being paid a substantial amount, I know consistency’s a huge thing; there’s no nights off. I’m really going to make that a key in my next three years, is to really just be consistent and just work hard and move my feet at all times.â€
For the aspirations the organization has thinking the rest of the way â€” Stanley Cup or bust â€” Barzal taking this extra responsibility head on will go a long way in him not only establishing himself even more as one of the leagueâ€™s top players but earning even more respect.
“[Barzal] is a special guy, a special player,” were the words of Lee about Barzal before the season. “He’s always got something great to say and he’s always got some great play to make. He brings it every day, he’s fun to be around and he’s just someone that cares deeply about not only his game, but the guys around him. I think that’s what makes him a special person. He’s the cornerstone of our team a little bit here.â€
Things will be different now for the Islanders with Leeâ€™s setback. G.M. Lou Lamoriello made it clear this morning the clubâ€™s outlook at the trade deadline has now shifted; that in part because of the $7 million provided with Lee going on LTIR. In regards to leadership though, the door is now open for Barzal to elevate himself. Penalties like he took Tuesday night are a reminder of things Barzal must try to avoid if he is going to be considered a leader.
Because thatâ€™s what heâ€™s going to need to be for the Isles the rest of this season and possibly beyond.
The one positive to come out of last nightâ€™s loss continues to be the goal scoring of rookie Oliver Wahlstrom. The 20-year-old tallied the Islesâ€™ only goal on the evening on the power play in the third period.