Saturday night’s 5-3 preseason win over the Rangers at UBS Arena marked the two-week countdown to the Islanders’ regular-season opener, and this lineup likely bore a strong resemblance to what the visiting Sabres will face on Oct. 14.
Of course, results are never guaranteed. But the Islanders got a balanced game, with all four lines contributing goals.
“Everybody contributed,” said Bo Horvat, who capped the Islanders’ three-goal first period at 17:11 with a wraparound. “It just seemed like everybody knew where everybody was going to be. That’s a lot to do with our routes in practice. And talking and communicating with your teammates.”
Up front, the foundation of the top three lines was on display.
Goalie Semyon Varlamov (22 saves), making his second start of the preseason after allowing three goals in the opening 3:10 of the Islanders’ 4-2 loss to the Rangers on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden, will be Ilya Sorokin’s backup.
Five of the defensemen in Saturday’s lineup are locks for opening night. Rookie Samuel Bolduc — who was paired with Scott Mayfield — is battling Sebastian Aho to be in the starting six.
“This time of the year, you’re working on different things and you’re trying to see what might click,” defenseman Ryan Pulock said. “Tonight, there’s a lot of guys who could be in our lineup. I think it’s important that we use that to our advantage of getting comfortable with each other and getting ourselves ready for opening night.”
“We start to work things in a little bit tighter,” said Anders Lee, who capped the scoring with an empty-netter as he skated on third-line center Jean-Gabriel Pageau’s left wing. “We’re getting closer and closer to that. Just continuing to work. Develop that chemistry with whoever you’re playing with. We’ve got a game in a couple of weeks. We’re just getting prepared for that and working out all the kinks. It’s really just a progression from camp.”
Horvat and Mathew Barzal, who had seven shots between them, remained together on the top line, with Simon Holmstrom auditioning on left wing. Pierre Engvall was on second-line center Brock Nelson’s left wing along with Hudson Fasching as Kyle Palmieri (undisclosed) has yet to skate with teammates at camp. Fasching’s drop pass off Artemi Panarin’s turnover set up Nelson’s wrister to make it 2-0 at 9:37 of the first period.
Former Ranger Julien Gauthier, trying to secure a full-time role, was with Pageau and Lee and received the secondary assist as Pageau cut to the crease to take Lee’s pass and open the scoring at 7:07 of the first period.
The Matt Martin-Casey Cizikas-Cal Clutterbuck fourth line remains set in stone, though only Clutterbuck was in Saturday’s lineup, with Ross Johnston and Kyle MacLean as his linemates. MacLean, from behind the crease, fed Clutterbuck for a 4-0 lead at 10:44 of the second period.
“I thought we played well for the most part,” said coach Lane Lambert, also noting that the Rangers cut the lead to 4-3 in the third period. “I thought we came out of the gate. We were moving the puck. We were playing fast. We were doing things that we have been talking about right from Day 1 in training camp. It was a very encouraging situation.”
While the top five defensemen are set, the three pairings are still to be finalized.
In addition to Bolduc skating with Mayfield, Pulock worked with Alexander Romanov — who logged 21:06 in his preseason debut after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery — while Adam Pelech, Pulock’s longtime partner, was paired with Noah Dobson.
Whether Lambert reverts to Pelech-Pulock as his top pair is one of the few camp intrigues.