The New York Islanders are playing a hockey game tonight.
Let me repeat: THE NEW YORK ISLANDERS ARE PLAYING A HOCKEY GAME TONIGHT.
After 139 days and a two-week training camp, the Isles are set to square off with the New York Rangers in their penultimate contest before they start their qualifying round series against the Florida Panthers this Saturday.
Barry Trotz’s squad has been itching to finally get some real competition after spending the last couple weeks doing intrasquad scrimmages. Now they’ll get their chance.
“I think everybody just wants to play a real game,” Matt Martin told reporters on Monday. To play an exhibition game, a little bit of a tuneup game before the real thing starts will be a good thing for everyone’s timing. The speed of the game and then obviously the physicality of the game, because it is a physical game out there.
Trotz still has some decisions to make regarding his lineup. Who will be starting in goal in game one between Semyon Varlamov and Thomas Greiss? Who will be the fifth and six d-men? Trotz acknowledged yesterday that 95% of the lineup playing tonight will be the same for the opening game this weekend. But he didn’t elaborate, and as we know, one or both of those slots on the blueline remained open for a majority of camp. And what will the second and third lines look like with both the first and fourth line already intact?
All of those things could be answered by the time the buzzer sounds this evening.
But beyond that, there are a few other aspects to keep an eye on just a few days before the real games begin.
Adam Pelech’s Return.
While the argument can be made, his teammates haven’t played a game in four months, Pelech hasn’t seen actual game action since January.
Now he did have time on the ice while he was rehabbing from a torn Achilles tendon? Yes. But that isn’t the same as playing a game. Pelech did receive a ton of praise from Trotz early on in camp, even to a degree in which Trotz said he was making his teammates look “ordinary.”
It will be interesting to see if Pelech shows warts in his game from such a long layoff or if he looks like he didn’t miss a beat and is still the team’s best d-man. Also, the chemistry he has with his d-partner Ryan Pulock: Will it be evident right off the hop, or will it take a little time to get back?
It was noted that the Isles spent a lot of time last week working on special teams before they made it to Toronto on Sunday. So tonight could be a first glimpse at what they might have in store for the series against Florida.
Hopefully, one of those glimpses is at a more aggressive power play.
The Isles had one of the worst power plays all season — 24th out of 31 teams — with much of it contributed to not drawing enough penalties. But it’s also because they weren’t the aggressor; not shooting the puck enough, too much overthinking, etc. This game is the perfect opportunity to show they will be in attack mode man-up and not trying to be too cute — which they are notorious for — in the postseason.
The penalty kill getting back a healthy Casey Cizikas should be fun to watch again. When he went down, that aspect of the Isles’ game took a hit.
The First Line picking up right where they left off.
Trotz made it crystal clear early on in camp that his first line — comprised of Mathew Barzal, Anders Lee, and Jordan Eberle — wasn’t going to be altered. It was the right call after how they looked before all the chaos of the pandemic took place.
That trio was carrying the bulk of the offense for close to a month leading up to the break, particularly Mathew Barzal. Barzal had 11 points in nine games leading up to the league shutting down; Eberle and Lee weren’t far behind, as they too were producing at a good rate.
If all the reports from training camp are true, the threesome looks ready to have a big impact in the play-in round. Barzal did score in each of the three scrimmages during the club’s first week of camp while Lee and Eberle both had strong showings as well.
That line is going to have to be at its best if the Islanders are gonna go on a run this summer.
Tonight will tell us a bit about what we should expect from them going forward.
A few other notes heading into Wednesday night:
-Ilya Sorokin finally took to the ice in an Islander uniform. The team tweeted out a picture Tuesday night of he sporting the orange in blue in practice earlier that day. Oh, and his new mask? A beauty. Very intrigued to see the full thing.
-Jon Ledecky saying on Andrew Gross’s Island Ice podcast he is “one thousand percent” confident the Islanders will play the 2020-21 season at Nassau Coliseum was very refreshing to hear. Ledecky had kept quiet on the situation after all the news about the Coliseum’s future being in doubt happened a month ago. So it was nice to hear from him as well as Oak View CEO Tim Leiweke, who is all-in on making the Isles last season be at the Coliseum come to fruition.
-Exhibition game or not, I’d expect a lot of intensity from both teams tonight. And yeah, it might not matter in the long run, but it would be nice to see the Islanders get back in the win column after not having been victorious in seven games when the season was stopped. Just getting that feeling again could be a nice add on to the team being jacked up for this weekend.