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 vs. 

RECORDS: Islanders 23-20-4   Hawks 22-17-6

PUCK DROP: 7:30pm

TV: NBCSN

NO ONE ESCAPES THE ISLAND: Lighthouse Hockey

Not that the Hawks are allowed the luxury of excuses anymore, but another one has fallen out of the way as the bye week is over. The Hawks can’t claim fatigue, they can’t claim they’re already on a break, they can’t claim… well, shit. It’s time to call for battle stations, as the Hawks are simply out of time to reach a level that simply might not be there if they’re going to play beyond the already scheduled slate.

They couldn’t ask for a much better dance partner coming out of the break than the Islanders. While they’re not terrible, the Isles are an open team that gives up a ton of shots and chances and don’t have a goalie that can stop waving at pucks and turning around the wrong way. Then again, the Wings gave up a ton of chances and had a terrible goalie heading in the UC and the Hawks had all their organs fall into their legs.

The Isles also happen to be in a bad way, coming into this one off a 5-2 tonking at the hands of the Bruins on Thursday at home when the Bs were on the second of a back-to-back. That was their fifth loss in the last eight and seventh in the last 10, and they are simply bleeding goals profusely. They’ve given up 30 in their last eight games, and the Rangers are the only ones they’ve held under four in that time.

It’s not just the goalies, of course, and the other thing bending the Hawks way is the Isles are somewhat beat up. On the blue line, both Calvin de Haan and Johnny Boychuk are out, and what remains has basically been Wendell Kim (sky point) at their own line. Nick Leddy put up a -15 in December and a -9 in January and while +/- is basically a bullshit stat, it gives you some idea of how everything has quaked for them recently. Leddy shouldn’t ever be taking on a top pairing assignment, and now he’s doing that while playing babysitter to Scott Mayfield. The Isles have a couple other kids back there in Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock, and the growing pains are there for all to see.

But this is burying the lede somewhat, as the Isles do boast one of the more exciting players to come in the league in Mathew Barzal and his missing “T.” Barzal is the runaway leader in the Calder race and with good cause. He even exhumed Andrew Ladd before Ladd got hurt, and he and Eberle have torn defenses apart all season. There are going to be some shifts tonight where they simply dance around whatever goof the Hawks have out there on defense, and you should prepare so you don’t pass out.

Their threat has loosened up the top line of Anders Lee-John Tavares-Josh Bailey. Bailey missed a couple weeks and returned on Thursday and the other two were something of a mess without him. Both Tavares and Bailey are in a contract drive this year, which doesn’t have Isles fans chewing on towels, drywall, their own skin at all. The top six here is one of the more threatening around, and has kept the Isles in touching distance of the Eastern playoffs. Good thing the Hawks will try and counter that with their best d-men, huh?

Oh right, that. The Hawks return from the break but Joel Quenneville’s brain is still out in Colorado or wherever he spent the bye. The Hawks best d-man this year, Murphy, and the mobile one they need, Kempny, are being scratched. In their place comes in Erik Gustafsson for…oh jesus I don’t fucking know, because he’s there? He’ll play his first game this year with Brent Seabrook who for sure won’t be turned into paste by either of the Isles top lines. Or they could look to shield them and have Rutta and Forsling deal with the Isles top six, which will go… well you know how that will fucking go. This is the good stuff here, people.

As far as the forwards, Anthony Duclair will move up with Toews and Saad, though he’ll be playing the right side where he, y’know, has barely ever played in his career. Vinnie Smalls slots down to the third line with Kampf and Top Cat, which is at least worth a look. The other two lines remain the same. Does anybody remember laughter?

Whatever the lineup, whatever their coach’s delusions, whatever their starting goalie’s condition, this is kind of it now. The Hawks blew the easier portion of this homestand, and now they’ll get the at least explosive Isles, the unholy force of the Lightning, and the malfunctioning Death Star that the Leafs are right now. Whatever the degree of difficulty, if the Hawks are going to be anything it has to start now. Otherwise, there should be some really tough questions asked.

 

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While we held out hope that Alex DeBrincat might get into the Calder discussion at the end of the season, there isn’t going to be much of a Calder discussion when this season is over. It’s Mathew Barzal’s unless he completely spills it in the season’s last half. And the future he may portend for the Islanders is probably even more exciting for Isles fans.

Barzal has been a point per game so far this year, and though we’re only barely halfway through the year he’s on pace to have the best rookie season since 2010. Connor McDavid is the only rookie to score at a higher pace, but he only played 45 games thanks to becoming McClavicle. He has a great  chance of topping both Artemi Panarin’s 77 points and Patrick Kane’s 72 points as rookies, which are the best points total as a rookie in the past decade.

But these aren’t empty points either. Barzal is way above the Isles’ rate in both Corsi and Expected Goals, He does get some sheltered zone starts but as he’s piled up the points the competition has gotten tougher and tougher.

Barzal’s actual goal-percentage are a sky-high 15% higher than the Islanders as a team. But this is where stats might not tell you everything. The Islanders shoot 10% with Barzal on the ice and he’s shooting 13% at even-strength himself. But given Barzal’s skills and vision, he might be creating better chances than just about everyone else. Yes, Barzal’s expected goals while on the ice is 2.63 per 60 and the Isles score at 3.65 per 60 which is obviously askew. But Barzal has been playing with Jordan Eberle, and both might just be gifted finishers.

To enjoy Barzal you have to go beyond the numbers. While there’s always a rush to declare someone similar to Patrick Kane (on the ice), Barzal is as close as you’re going to get. And he might do it faster? The game slows down when Barzal has the puck and gives him the time to pick his openings. He extends possessions simply because he can hold onto the puck for so long and wade in and out of traffic. Combined with Eberle and they make some real symphonies out there.

Perhaps the biggest thing that Barzal brings is that he might just be enough to keep John Tavares on the island. Or get him back there when they move to Belmont. Sure, there aren’t a lot of places Tavares can go due to the cap. Maybe Montreal, but he’d never go to Carolina you don’t think, the Flyers are doubtful, the Rangers are a mess, and so on.

But if you’re Tavares, with Barzal in tow and Brock Nelson behind that one could conclude they have center depth for a while. There are three young d-men who look to be mainstays. Yes, the Islanders still have much to figure out and it starts in goal. They’re a good bet to miss the playoffs again. But Barzal’s best years are ahead of him and that has to be awfully alluring.

The landscape may change as well. The Penguins may already be aging, and the Capitals are the Capitals. As said , the Rangers window has shut the big bad wolf is warming up on their straw house. The Devils’ arrow is definitely pointing up, and the Jackets are… well, the Jackets. It feels like the Canes may never get it together. There’s definitely a window here, and Barzal is the biggest reason why.

Still, get him a second “t” in his first name already.

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Dan Saraceni is an editor at LightHouseHockey.com. You can follow him on Twitter @CultureOfLosing. 

We’ll start with something joyous: Mathew Barzal, the best player ever or the bestest player ever?

The best. Maybe bestest ever. Islanders haven’t had a player with this… whatever it is in a long time. Even as great as Tavares is, the speed and elusiveness of Barzal is like X-Men level. Of course, as expected, we’re now into the “stop turning the puck over” part of the program but he’s got the awareness and quickness to clean up his own messes a lot of the time. I’ll be sad if he doesn’t win the Calder but those things happen. I’m more excited about seeing what he can do in years two, three and beyond.

Anders Lee is on pace for 40 goals, after 34 last year. That would make him one of the more dangerous scorers in the league. is that what he is? Or a Tavares product? And was Lee who  Peter Chiarelli thought he was getting for Eberle and got confused?
Lee is Tim Kerr, that immobile net front beast that cleans up a lot of rebounds. He’s a little better than just that, but it’s “where his fish is fried,” as Doug Weight said. I wouldn’t say he’s a product of Tavares because he had 36 goals last year, many coming after Tavares was hurt and missed the end of the season. But what’s weird is that without Josh Bailey, that whole line hadn’t worked that well over the last few games. That might be because they had a rotating cast of nobodies on the other wing, but I think Bailey and Lee work as a tandem because of the set-up/net front dynamic. Tavares will be Tavares no matter who he’s with. I think Chiarelli thought he was getting all three Strome brothers for Eberle in a kinda weird Hockey Voltron deal or something.
The Isles are rocking three young d-men in Pelech, Mayfield, and Pulock. What’s the outlook for this trio?
The outlook is long because they’ve already signed Pelech and Mayfield to cheap, long term deals of four and five years respectively. They’re both similar: more defensive than offensive, not especially quick, prone to games of quiet competence and bouts of overt ineptitude, seem like nice guys. Pulock had high expectations given his AHL scoring numbers and big slap shot. His defense has gotten better this season but he’s been reluctant to let it rip for some reason earlier this season. He’s definitely got talent, it’s just a matter of putting it all together (and letting the coaches keep him in the lineup).
Are the Islanders gonna have to find a goalie before the deadline?
Honestly, at this point, I don’t think it’s as simple as that. This team has a lot of structural and fundamental issues that need to be addressed first. Neither goalie has had a good season. Greiss’s 50-something save performance in Montreal on Monday was his best game since October and he’s been sub-.900 the entire time. Halak was awful in November, but has shown more signs of life throughout the season. I was at the 4-1 loss to the Devils on Tuesday and it’s hard to say he was at fault for all but one goal. No goalie should have to face 40+ shots a night. Halak’s a UFA and they’ll need the savings to sign Tavares and (I hope) Bailey. Greiss will be back next year, and I hope back to the above average goalie he was when they signed him. They have some prospects playing overseas that they’re banking on, too. Typical Islanders: the answer is always tomorrow.
So how does this Tavares thing go? Barzal, new arena plans all show promise for the future. In the other hand, may miss the playoffs again.
I’ve been compiling Tavares free agency stories for almost two years now and I still have no idea. Before Monday, when he told a crowd of Montreal reporters that he wants to stay on Long Island and has never thought about playing anywhere else, he had been consistent in saying, “I like it here, I’m focused on winning and when the time is right, I’ll weigh all the information.” (which reminds me, I need to add that stuff.) Most insiders agree he’ll stay. I think that he thinks they can still be a winner, especially with Barzal now in the picture. Belmont was huge. The new owners have to know that without him, even less people will want to watch them. They have money coming off the books, which was smart. But I’ve seen them screw up so many lay-ups, it’s hard to think they won’t do it again.

 

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