BOSTON — In some respects, the Islanders’ loss to the Bruins on Saturday was relatively predictable. Even when healthy, they can’t really match up top to bottom with the best team in the league. When a handful of top-nine forwards are out, they are playing on just about 20 hours of rest, with travel, and all-world goalie Ilya Sorokin has the night off, well, it always had the chance to be ugly.
But, this ugly?
Even with Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Josh Bailey ruled out before the game, and Mathew Barzal’s departure about six minutes into the first period, the game was still an embarrassing one from the visitor’s standpoint as they lost, 6-2, in a game that didn’t even feel that close. After all, they are still supposedly fighting for a playoff spot, were coming off of their biggest win of the season on Friday, and had their dads in the building. Instead of rising to the occasion amid difficult circumstances, not only were the Islanders outclassed in terms of talent, but they were also out-hustled and outworked from the drop of the puck, surrendering the first three goals in the first period and never making it even close to a competitive game.
The playoffs are still a conversation topic with this team only because the other teams around them seem to have just as many issues. But Saturday’s lopsided loss in Boston was the kind of performance that again suggests this team may never find a way to give consistent enough efforts to actually qualify, even if they do somehow beat the Penguins again on Monday night in Pittsburgh.
Coach Lane Lambert, though, didn’t seem overly displeased with the evening.
“It seemed like every time we made a mistake it ended up in the back of our net,” Lambert said. “That team obviously has the ability to do that. We didn’t make a ton of mistakes. … The scoring chances throughout the game were fairly equal, but we came out on the wrong end of it. At the end of the day, they just capitalized.”
To be fair to Lambert, scoring chances were fairly even, at least according to Natural Stat Trick, which gave the Bruins just a 24-22 edge. And, goalie Semyon Varlamov had an off night, giving up all six goals on 27 shots.
But this wasn’t a game in which that should even be looked at. The Islanders were thoroughly outmaneuvered over the first 10 minutes, especially, as the Bruins swarmed the puck and won every battle, eventually jumping out to a 3-0 lead before the intermission. Yes, Barzal’s apparent lower-body injury on a hit from Craig Smith early in the game didn’t help, and his status moving forward is uncertain, but there’s no reason to believe that had Barzal remained in for the duration of the game the end result would have been any different. The Islanders really only had one high-quality chance in the opening frame when Bo Horvat cut to the net and got a shot on Linus Ullmark from close range with about three minutes go to. But Ullmark made the stop, and Trent Frederic’s goal moments later at 17:19 gave the Bruins their three-goal edge.
Against the Bruins, that sort of lead is insurmountable.
“Yeah, the best team in hockey for a reason, and in their building, it’s a Saturday, the place is buzzing,” said Matt Martin, who scored a late third-period goal to cap the scoring. “We didn’t do enough early in the game to give ourselves a chance late. You get down 3-0, it’s a tough, tough climb back.”
And what exactly was the problem early?
Said Kyle Palmieri: “I think we were maybe a little bit on our heels. Put ourselves on the penalty kill. Obviously, that’s a pretty dangerous power play over there. They score, they’re at home, Saturday night. … Kind of snowballed.”
As Palmieri indicated, the Islanders did take two penalties in the first period, including Casey Cizikas’ hooking minor which led to Jake DeBrusk’s pretty goal at 2:15, and another by Sebastian Aho for tripping a little later. The only reason the Islanders were in those positions, though, was because they were getting beat to the puck with regularity.
But questionable effort aside, the Islanders now have another huge problem. Both Pageau and Bailey are not expected to play on Monday, per Lambert, and Barzal’s status is also now up in the air. While losing Bailey isn’t much of a blow, as he was scoreless in 21 straight games before he exited Friday in the second period with an upper-body injury, Pageau gives the team depth down the middle and is a key penalty killer, while Barzal had been playing some of his best hockey of the season since being placed on a line with Horvat.
Hit on Barzal that sent him to the room pic.twitter.com/OCm6alSYmM
— Rob Taub (@RTaub_) February 18, 2023
Simon Holmstrom now has one point in his last 11 games. Cizikas has no points in his last 12 games. Hudson Fasching has gone eight straight without a point. Martin’s third-period goal was just his third point in the last 12 games. Andy Andreoff assisted on Martin’s goal, but has spent nearly all of the season in the AHL. All of these guys will likely be in the lineup again on Monday.
In other words, the Islanders’ bottom-six forward group is an offensive black hole, and there’s no indication when any of the injured guys are going to return.
In Barzal’s absence, Palmieri skated with Horvat and Anders Lee, giving the Islanders at least a respectable top line. But Barzal had nine points in his previous seven games entering Saturday, so losing him for any amount of time could spell doom.
“He’s a very important player for us in all different aspects, of course,” Lambert said. “As much as you try not to let it affect you, we had a power play that didn’t go very well, and he’s a big part of that. There’s a residual effect all the way down the lineup.”
Added Palmieri: “You lose a forward, obviously we lost Bails last night in the second period, it kind of messes up the flow and you’re playing a bit shorthanded. Doing that on back-to-back nights, it’s part of the challenge. We weren’t able to rise to it tonight.”