Adam Pelech stood out in the crowd for the Islanders on Thursday night, scoring the first goal and helped to prevent one with a big block during penalty-killing duty.
So after the 2-1 win over Montreal at the Coliseum, Barry Trotz was asked about Pelech. The coach just started raving about the 24-year-old defenseman, calling his work in the game “outstanding.”
“He has continued to play firm in the defensive zone, and he’s jumping up at the right times,” Trotz said. “He’s playing with confidence.
“Yeah, he’s a lot different player than at the start of the year, and that’s fantastic for us and fantastic for him because he’s finding that next level of player that a player can be. That’s what you want from a player is he understands that there’s a level he can get to. Why settle for good if he can be great?”
Pelech heard about those words, and he appreciated them. He has indeed taken a leap forward during his second full season for an Islanders team that will enter Saturday’s game at Detroit trailing first-place Washington by two points in the Metropolitan Division.
“Whenever Trotzy says anything like that, it definitely means a lot,” Pelech said after Friday’s practice at Northwell Health Ice Center. “Yeah, I think over the course of the year, especially over the past couple of months, my game has really started to come around.
“Playing with Ryan [Pulock] helps a lot, too. He’s a very talented player and he makes the game easy for me.”
They’ve been paired steadily since mid-December. Pulock said they’ve gotten “more comfortable with each other,” and that has helped Pelech “stabilize his game.” Pelech has scored a career-high five goals along with 12 assists. He’s also at plus-21 after finishing at a career-high plus-7 last season.
“Lately, he just wins every battle defensively,” Pulock said. “I think the big thing is just confidence. I think this side of the year, it’s important to kind of get that confidence because it helps with some of your poise and winning those battles. I think in the last few months, he’s really got that back, and he’s making the right play.”
They were paired for the first four games of the season before Trotz made Pelech a healthy scratch Oct. 17. Trotz scratched Pelech twice more in November and again Jan. 12, saying then that his play was “slipping.”
But Pelech has emerged without a scratch since that time.
“When you’re left out of the lineup, it can be a bit of a wake-up call,” Pelech said. “It’s not fun. You kind of try to be better and think about the things you can improve. I think I’ve done that, and especially since then. I don’t know if it was because of the healthy scratch or not.”
The Islanders made the 6-3 Toronto native a third-round pick in 2012. His debut came during the 2015-16 season when he played nine games. But surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome took a chunk out of that season. He played 44 games the following season.
Then-GM Garth Snow showed what he thought of Pelech in July of 2017 by handing him a four-year, $6.4 million deal at the age of 22.
“It’s a great feeling when the organization shows faith in you, and I’ve been lucky enough to have some people that believe in me,” Pelech said. “When they reward you like that, you definitely want to prove them right and not be complacent and try to be your best self and be the best player you can be.”