Barry Trotz likened finding the right line combinations to figuring out a Rubik’s Cube.
"A Rubik’s Cube would probably be a better analogy to that than a puzzle," the Islanders coach said. "I’m just trying to get a little more production out of the lines."
At the core is how to coax the most production out of Mathew Barzal and his top line, whoever might be on it.
The Islanders concluded a three-game series against the Capitals on Tuesday night in Washington after a 1-0 shootout loss at Nassau Coliseum on Thursday and a 6-3 home defeat two nights later in which they were outscored 6-0 at even strength.
Barzal entered Tuesday without a goal in his last 11 games, though he had six assists in that span. The Islanders had been held to one or fewer goals in six of those 11 games.
He had just four goals – of his 13 for the season – in the 21 games since captain and longtime linemate Anders Lee suffered a season-ending torn right anterior cruciate ligament on March 11. Three of those goals came in the Islanders’ 8-4 win over the Capitals at the Coliseum on April 1 when Barzal matched a career high with five points.
"Anytime you lose a guy with the talent Leesy has and just his presence out there, you’re going to have a little bit of a tough time finding the exact chemistry," Barzal said. "Especially how we’ve played together the last two or three years. He’s so elite at what he does."
Islanders president and general manager Lou Lamoriello tried to partially offset Lee’s loss by acquiring top-nine forwards Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac from the Devils on April 7.
Trotz used rookie Kieffer Bellows in Lee’s spot in the first four games after the left wing’s injury. Since then, Leo Komarov, a grinder who usually plays in the bottom six, had started 12 games on Barzal’s left wing. Trotz had also started five games with Zajac on Barzal’s line with Jordan Eberle, who had just one goal in his last eight games entering Tuesday.
Palmieri had yet to be tried entering Tuesday.
"I think anytime you make a trade, you run the possibility through your mind of playing with either one of those guys," Barzal. "I thought when Zajac was on our line, we had some good games. That’s on Barry. He knows our lineup really well and he knows what everybody brings and what lines seem to need. I just go out there and play with whoever I’m with and try to make the best of it."
Trotz said Barzal has shown good patience as he tries to find the right lineup combinations.
"I think he understands without Anders there, there is a little bit of finding the right fit," Trotz said. "And Leo seems to be the fit that has fit probably the best. To the analytic community, it probably doesn’t make any logical sense. But it does for the line. It has the most production when it does, or it’s the most complete. It seems to have some synergy within our room, within our bench."
Barzal said his line has generated chances, "it just seems the back of the net has been a little tougher to find lately as a team and as a line."
"With players like Mat that are highly skilled, if it’s not going precisely how they envision in their head, they try to do more by themselves," Trotz said. "The reality is they’ve got to trust their teammates more and work through things together rather than take it on their shoulders."