2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Brock Nelson, Carolina Hurricanes, Kyle Palmieri, Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders

Islanders’ Depth Will Be Key to Come Back Against Hurricanes

The first two games of the First Round have exposed the weaknesses of the New York Islanders’ offense. In Game 1, the Carolina Hurricanes held them to only one goal, which came off the stick of defenseman Ryan Pulock. Game 2 saw the top-six step up and score three goals, but the Islanders ultimately fell short, losing 4-3 in overtime.

Related: 4 Takeaways From Islanders 4-3 Game 2 Loss vs Hurricanes

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The Hurricanes have an elite defensive unit, and it’s shown in this series. They’ve limited shooting lanes and dared the Islanders to take tough-angle shots. Likewise, they have clogged up the middle of the ice, essentially eliminating scoring chances for Anders Lee and the Islanders’ centers.

The Islanders are in a 2-0 hole as they head back home for Game 3, and they need their offense to show up more than ever. They averaged 2.95 goals per game this season, but to come back in their series, they’ll need three goals or more in each game. Specifically, the Islanders need their entire forward unit to contribute in the remaining games, or this series will be over quickly.

Barzal & Nelson Need to Lead the Offense

Game 2 provided some promising signs for the Islanders in this series. Mathew Barzal, who was a non-factor in the first game, found his footing and started contributing to the offense. He found an open shot on the rush and, with his speed, created a shooting lane to fire the puck past Hurricanes’ goaltender Antti Raanta to tie the game at the end of the second period.

Mathew Barzal New York Islanders
Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

In this series, the Islanders will only create scoring chances with speed skating and aggressiveness, especially on rushes. Barzal is the skater that can best create those opportunities with his speed and playmaking ability. He needs to emerge as the top-line forward that the team needs and, more importantly, prove that he is more than just a passer.

In Game 2, Barzal scored one of the team’s three goals, but throughout his career, he’s been known for creating scoring chances and not finishing them. His stats reflect his pass-first mentality, with 14 goals and 37 assists this season and 105 goals and 257 assists in his career. Against the Hurricanes, if Barzal has open looks on net, he needs to take advantage to elevate a struggling Islanders offense.

Brock Nelson, meanwhile, has been the Islanders’ best goal scorer all season, leading the team with 36 goals. In the Game 2 overtime loss, he showed why with his skating ability in space and his shot. In the third period, he slipped past Hurricanes’ center Martin Necas and found the puck with only Raanta in his way, and a top-shelf shot put the Islanders ahead 3-2, giving them their first lead of the series. When given the opportunity, Nelson takes advantage and punishes opposing defenses, as he did in the previous game.

Brock Nelson New York Islanders
Brock Nelson, New York Islanders (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Goals have been a rarity in this series, with the Islanders only scoring four in the first two games. The offense needs the goal scorers to step up and carry them to not only even up the series but allow the Islanders to advance to the next round. Nelson is one of the skaters that can lead the way, and even if the rest of the offense struggles, he can bail them out with a few big shots. The first two games have been decided by one goal each, and a big shot from Nelson will impact a game and the series.

Palmieri & Shooters Must Step Up

Kyle Palmieri started the goal-scoring in Game 2 with his wraparound goal in the second period. The goal helped the Islanders’ comeback in the game, but what stood out was how he found the back of the net. Palmieri is a sharpshooter, and while he scored with a backhand shot, he exposed Raanta and his weaknesses, something the veteran has done throughout his career.

In the First Round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Palmieri noticed that opposing goaltender Tristan Jarry struggled to save the glove-side shots. In the series, Palmieri scored three goals with shots to the glove side that exploited Jarry’s weakness and ultimately allowed the Islanders to advance in a six-game series. Two years later, the Islanders face a goaltender that appears to have a similar weakness. Two of the four goals Raanta has allowed have come on glove-side shots, where the Hurricanes goaltender whiffed on the shots as the puck found the back of the net.

Kyle Palmieri New York Islanders
Kyle Palmieri, New York Islanders (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Along with Palmieri exploiting Raanta’s weakness, the Islanders’ sharp-shooting forward must step up in this series. They must dare Raanta to make big saves and, specifically, stop the glove-side shots. Zach Parise, who had the third-most goals on the team this year with 21, needs to start getting pucks on the net. Pierre Engvall needs to make his mark after establishing himself as a reliable goal-scorer when he was acquired at the trade deadline. The Hurricanes are limiting shooting lanes and forcing the Islanders to find shots on the wing instead of in the middle of the offensive zone. As a result, the accurate shooter will provide a significant impact on the rest of this series.

Islanders Need Production from the Bottom-Six

The Islanders’ bottom-six has been invisible, especially offensively. They’ve gotten zero points from their third and fourth lines, and it’s given the Hurricanes a distinct advantage in this series.

Forward depth used to be a strength for the Islanders, most notably when the playoffs started. Casey Cizikas was the one who scored the Game 2 overtime-winning goal in the Second Round series against the Boston Bruins in 2021, evening up the series and allowing the team to ultimately win in six games. Cal Clutterbuck and Matt Martin combined for seven goals and three assists in the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and in 2021, they combined for five goals and four assists, helping the Islanders reach the Semifinal.

Matt Martin Casey Cizikas Cal Clutterbuck New York Islanders
Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas, and Cal Clutterbuck, New York Islanders (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

In the First Round, they’ve made their mark, but unfortunately, it’s only been with their hits and the penalties they’ve taken. In Game 2, Cizikas took a four-minute high-sticking penalty, while Martin took an interference penalty as the first period came to a close. Both penalties set the Islanders back and prevented them from establishing a rhythm early in the game. Moreover, the three veteran skaters have been a non-factor offensively, with Cizikas being the only one to have a shot on goal in the first two games.

The team’s forward depth needs to step up and start to contribute in the offensive zone. Cizikas, Clutterbuck, and Martin are known for their defense, but they need to add a spark to the offense and start creating scoring opportunities. Along with the fourth-line skaters, Hudson Fasching needs to make his mark in this series. Fasching has been a pleasant surprise this season, establishing himself as a reliable contributor in all three zones despite not being on the opening night roster. He needs to hit his stride offensively and help out an Islanders offense that has struggled.

Other Players That Must Step Up for the Offense

The Islanders acquired Bo Horvat to be a star that can carry the offense. Through two playoff games, he’s been anything but, despite leading the team with 21:29 average ice time in the series. Horvat has a great shot, and in a series where the Islanders need to test the Hurricanes’ goaltending, they need him to tap into it. Likewise, Lee and Jean-Gabriel Pageau, who combined for 41 goals and 49 assists this season, have disappeared in the First Round, failing to score a point.

Along with the forward unit stepping up, the Islanders’ defensemen must be more active in the offensive zone. The Hurricanes have shown the impact scoring defensemen can have in a series, with Brent Burns and Jaccob Slavin playing significant roles in the team’s 2-0 series lead. The Islanders similarly need their defensemen to step up at the blue line and open up the offense.

The Islanders have been outplayed through two games. However, this series is far from over. The offense stepping up in the upcoming games will turn the series around and give the Islanders momentum, allowing them to possibly take the series altogether.

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