On Saturday, the Islanders tied their second round series at two apiece against the Bruins by defeating them 4-1 before 12,000 loud fans at the old barn off the Meadowbrook Parkway. Mat Barzal scored the game-winner with over seven minutes left in regulation.
The first line center was their best player, leading them to the big Game Four victory on home ice. He also assisted on Kyle Palmieri’s game-tying goal during a delayed penalty. It was the center’s best game given the circumstances. He played a straight line game with the kind of grit he hasn’t shown. Barzal has goals in the last two games. He’s come alive at the right time for the Islanders. They’ll need that to continue when the series shifts to Boston for a pivotal Game Five.
Looking at how well Barzal played which included working over David Krejci with crosschecks until he snapped and speared the Isles’ most talented forward for a two-minute slashing minor (originally a major until reviewed), it’s clear that the play-making pivot listened to coach Barry Trotz. He shot the puck and got the end results the Isles needed. Prior to Game Three which saw him beat Tuukka Rask on a wraparound to force overtime, Barzal was quiet with only four assists this postseason. However, Trotz never wavered regarding his star pupil’s struggles. That confidence was rewarded.
Call it the Trotz Effect. The veteran NHL coach who guided the Capitals to their first Stanley Cup in 2018, has instilled the structure that makes the lesser talented Islanders successful. In three years coaching his third NHL team after good stints in Nashville and Washington DC, the Trotz’ led Islanders have made the playoffs all three seasons and won five series. That included last year’s run to the franchise’s first Conference Final since ’93. They lost to eventual Cup champ Tampa Bay in a hard fought six games. After finishing fourth in the East Division, they were underdogs against the Pens in the first round. But they wore down the division top seed by winning the last three games to advance in six. Sidney Crosby was held to one goal by the Brock Nelson line featuring Josh Bailey and Anthony Beauvillier. Along with Ilya Sorokin, Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock, they were the story.
“It’s like a boxer. You get hit enough, at some point you’re going to go down. That’s how you win fights. You’ve got to … win your battles to get free from people, and get to the inside. And that’s what playoff hockey is. As much as it is about skill, it’s as much about will,” explained Trotz about what playoff hockey is like. He emphasizes the hard checking style that Long Island fans identify with. With it being a four line team minus a true superstar, everyone plays.
That includes the Identity Line of Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck. A cohesive checking unit that was reformed three years ago when Team President and GM Lou Lamoriello acquired Martin from the Maple Leafs. Considering how hard he plays with the physical brand of hockey he provides, would the hexed Leafs like a do over on that one? It’s that kind of tenacity and grit that the Leafs are lacking. No wonder they haven’t advanced out of the first round since 2004. After blowing a three games to one lead against bitter rival Montreal, they’re up to 0-8 in elimination games. That includes 0 for 5 in Game Sevens. Former Islanders’ star center John Tavares chose to leave and play for his hometown team. Without him due to the scary incidental knee from Corey Perry, Toronto didn’t have enough to win. Both Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner had poor series. You wonder if the Leafs will ever get it right.
Lamoriello looks like a genius after leaving. Once he hired Trotz, who the Caps foolishly low balled, it changed how the Islanders are viewed. He’s proven that his defensive system works. Whether it’s the Barzal line that features Jordan Eberle and Leo Komarov, the Nelson line of Killer Bees, the Identity Line anchored by Cizikas, or the third line which has Jean-Gabriel Pageau centering Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac, the Islanders are a T-E-A-M. From the goal out with Semyon Varlamov leading the way after replacing Sorokin following an ineffective Game One, these Islanders are a tough team to beat. They win the battles in the trenches and finish every check.
On Saturday, they were the better team five-on-five thanks to their heavy forecheck. Barzal made it pay dividends by setting up Palmieri with a beautiful pass for a six-on-five goal after drawing a penalty to tie the game. A great response to a Krejci power play goal that stood up following an unsuccessful coach’s challenge from Trotz to see if Brad Marchand had interfered with Varlamov. His team got the all important penalty kill on Boston’s second consecutive power play to swing the momentum. With the crowd urging them on, they tied it up thanks to the strong skating and vision of Barzal. Once it was all even, you felt that the Isles would find a way to win the game. Had they not, it could’ve been the final game at Nassau Coliseum. Instead, they know there’ll be a Game Six this week. Will it be as a potential clincher like Round One or looking to force a Game Seven? That’ll depend on Monday night with Game Five in Beantown.
Even though goals have been hard to come by, it’s been compelling hockey. You have two evenly matched teams who play similar styles. Neither side passes up an opportunity to finish a check. The biggest hit was by Clutterbuck, who sounded shaken up after his clean hit injured Bruins defenseman Brandon Carlo in Game Three. Carlo had to be helped off the ice. I’d be surprised if we saw him again this round. Especially given his recent history. He suffered a concussion following a vicious hit from Tom Wilson that led to seven-game suspension. In his place skated Jarred Tinordi yesterday. It’ll be interesting to see if the Bruins keep him in the lineup on Monday night.
Aside from the hard fought board battles for loose pucks we’ve seen, you even had a pair of fights in the first period of Game Four. In a surprise, Taylor Hall dropped the gloves with Scott Mayfield. It was only his second ever fight and first since 2011. The other scrap featured Matt Martin getting the better of Tinordi. The cheers during the scoreless period were loud. So was the animosity between the two clubs. It boiled over when Barzal got into it with Krejci. Continuing to work over the Bruins veteran center, he finally got the reaction when Krejci gave him a chop to the lower region. It easily could’ve remained a major. But they opted for a two minute penalty instead. Barzal was okay. He proved it by dominating shifts. It was fitting that he got the winner.
On a Noah Dobson pass, a Mayfield shot took a funny deflection. With nobody else able to find it, a cognizant Barzal spotted it and swung and connected with his best baseball swing to beat a stunned Rask with 7:03 left. It was just a terrific play by a good player. Sometimes, it’s easy to forget how skilled Barzal is. Better known for his superb skating and creative passing as evidenced when he found Palmieri for the tying goal in the second period, he also is capable of scoring goals. He did to force overtime on Thursday when he showed determination to stuff in a second attempt past Rask. For the Islanders to win the series, they will continue to need the kind of inspired play Barzal has provided over the last two games. He has two goals and a helper. That he also came back hard defensively and back checked shows maturity. He’s learning how to play winning hockey in the playoffs.
That’s the Trotz Effect. He has changed the way the Islanders play. They used to be a freewheeling, offense only team with little defense. That hung goalies out to dry. Under Trotz, the 18 skaters play hard. They have no choice. Either bring it or sit. In the past, the successful Cup winner hasn’t been shy about benching his best players. That’s included Barzal when he’s taken bad penalties or missed a defensive assignment. That’s how a good coach gets the attention of their team. By making everyone accountable.
Empty net goals from Pageau and Cizikas finished off the Bruins. Pageau was given the tough assignment of shutting down the Bergeron line that features Marchand and David Pastrnak. Pastrnak probably felt horrible after missing on a one-timer with a gaping net earlier in the game. Instead, he hit the far goalpost with Varlamov dead to rights. Sometimes, you need a break like that to prevail or a bounce. That definitely helped the Isles, who now visit TD Garden in the exact same scenario as the first round against Pittsburgh. In that series, they hung around and took Game Five and came back home and finished off the Pens. This time, they’re facing a better goalie in Rask, who has played brilliantly. He couldn’t have been better in Game Four. To put it mildly, he isn’t Tristan Jarry.
It won’t be easy tomorrow. Nor should it for the rest of this intriguing second round match-up. Whoever wins the East Final will earn it. Like Trotz said, it’ll be won in the trenches. A war on ice between two good hockey teams who won’t back down. Tom Petty would be proud.