The Islanders are built four-line tough, that is understood. They can withstand a lack of production from an upper-echelon forward. They can even win a best-of-seven under that circumstance. This we know after the six-game, Round 1 victory over the Penguins in which Mat Barzal was held off the scoresheet.
But the Islanders won’t thrive forever, or perhaps even for very much longer, if Barzal does not get untracked following a disappointing outing in Saturday’s opening 5-2 defeat to the Bruins, on for only four attempts for and 16 against at five-on-five.
“It will be difficult,” head coach Barry Trotz said when asked if his team could sustain success without Barzal generating offense. “We have in the past, at times, but to be quite honest I don’t know if we can do it against a very good Boston team.
“We rely on the four lines and need at least three lines going and I didn’t feel that I had three lines that were really on top of their game [on Saturday]. I think we have a really good analogy with the [Patrice] Bergeron line. If it’s not going for Boston, they would probably be in a little bit of trouble.”
That analogy, though, would probably be more apt if Anders Lee hadn’t gone down on March 11. Because while the Lee-Barzal-Jordan Eberle unit clearly was at the top of the Islanders’ ecosystem, it is not clear at all that Barzal centering Eberle and Leo Komarov remains the club’s first line.
Indeed, the Anthony Beauvillier-Brock Nelson-Josh Bailey unit probably has earned that designation. And off its play through the first seven playoff matches, the line centered by Jean-Gabriel Pageau with Kyle Palmieri on one side and either Oliver Wahlstrom or Travis Zajac on the other might even be considered the team’s second line.
Trotz said that he would go with the same personnel for Monday’s Game 2 but was considering switching up a combination or two. One would imagine that the coach is contemplating a switch on at least one of Barzal’s flanks.
Adding a more dynamic element to No. 13’s line would prevent the B’s from keying so strongly on the center, who is the focus of all of Boston’s attention when on the ice. There is no doubt that flipping Palmieri and Komarov would boost Barzal’s line even if dinging Pageau’s, but it would seem that lending aid to No. 13 would be a priority.
Nevertheless, Barzal must adapt and adjust. Fact is, he drew the Charlie McAvoy-Matt Grzelcyk top pair last match for just 3:36 at five-on-five, about the same amount of time as Pageau’s unit and much less than the 7:46 drawn by Nelson’s line. His unit got the Brad Marchand-Patrice Bergeron-David Pastrnak line as a match for 4:04, opposed to the 6:22 for Nelson’s unit.
So that, A) would tell you whom the Bruins consider the Islanders’ top line, and, B) should have been of at least some benefit to the club’s leading scorer during the regular season (17-28-45), who has gone 0-3-3 throughout the tournament.
“I think that if you get on your ice it doesn’t matter who you play with,” Trotz said. “You’ve got to raise your game, and we’ve got some guys who need to raise their games if we’re going to beat the Boston Bruins.”
If it is on Barzal to break out of containment, it is on the Islanders to contain the Bergeron line to at least some degree following its dominating performance in Game 1 in which Pastrnak recorded a hat trick — one on the power play — and the unit owned a staggering 89.16 xGF.
“One of the questions was, ‘You did a good job against [Sidney] Crosby’s line, what’s the difference between Crosby’s line and Bergeron’s?’ and I can answer that probably a little bit better [now],” Trotz said. “With Crosby’s line there is a great player and two very good players [in Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust] and on this line there are probably three great players at different points in their career.
“That’s what makes that line so good. We can’t, and we won’t be able to win unless we have all four lines helping to keep them contained.”
And the Islanders probably won’t be able to win unless they get much better and much more from Barzal, who has a career seven goals in 37 playoff games.
P.S.: Bryan Trottier had five goals in his first 42 playoff games … before scoring 37 in his next 75.