Goalie Ilya Sorokin might have been the best player on the UBS Arena ice on Thursday night.
That just highlighted how slow and disorganized the Islanders appeared from the opening faceoff in a disheartening 4-1 loss to the dominant Devils.
“I don’t think we’ve played a team with that kind of speed yet,” Mathew Barzal said. “That’s a fast hockey club over there. They make a ton of plays. We just got hit with a lot of speed and we were turning pucks over and feeding it. That was the main key tonight.”
Sorokin made 39 saves and kept the Islanders — who struggled mightily to complete passes — within a theoretical chance of making it a game despite being outshot 18-5 in the third period and 43-17 overall.
“We weren’t good and he kept it even,” defenseman Ryan Pulock said. “All night we just weren’t able to put it together. We weren’t able to execute.”
A lightly-tested Mackenzie Blackwood stopped 16 shots, his shutout spoiled by Anders Lee at 16:44 of the third period when the Islanders pulled within 3-1 skating five-on-four.
The Islanders split their season-opening four-game homestand with a difficult first road trip now looming against the Lightning and Panthers on Saturday and Sunday. Those are the first two of four straight games against teams that made the playoffs last season.
“It was extremely disappointing because we had been trending up, we had done a lot of good things in the last couple of games,” coach Lane Lambert said of wins over the struggling Ducks and Sharks. “I wasn’t happy with the compete level and I do buy into the fact that faceoffs are a reflection of that.”
The Islanders won just 20 of 51 faceoffs (39%) with Barzal and Brock Nelson each losing nine of 12. Per Natural Stat Trick, the Devils had 14 high-danger chances to the Islanders’ four.
“It just starts with the battles,” defenseman Ryan Pulock said. “We lost too many one-on-one battles and gave them possession and we’re trying to chase the puck and then we’re not executing when we do get the puck.”
Lambert tweaked his lines for the second straight game looking for an offensive spark. It worked in Tuesday night’s 5-2 win over the Sharks.
This time, not so much.
Lee moved to Barzal’s left wing along with Kyle Palmieri. Anthony Beauvillier, reunited with Barzal in the previous game, went right back to Nelson’s line, this time with Josh Bailey. And Jean-Gabriel Pageau wound up between Zach Parise and Oliver Wahlstrom after Wahlstrom had the opportunity to skate with Nelson.
Sorokin’s strong play aside, a rare positive for the Islanders in the game was their continued success on the penalty kill which is now 15-for-15 as they stymied all three Devils’ power plays while yielding eight man-advantage shots. Troubling, though, was taking three penalties in the offensive zone, two by Lee.
“You can’t take penalties in the offensive zone 200 feet away from your net,” Lambert said. “Not a recipe for success. You can take penalties you have to take. Unnecessary ones are usually tough, they sort of switch momentum early on.”
The Devils held a 13-3 shot advantage in the first period — defenseman Noah Dobson took the Islanders’ first shot at 16:53 to derisive cheers — then scored twice in the second period. Defenseman Damon Severson’s head-man pass sprung Jack Hughes into the Islanders’ zone past flat-footed and falling defenseman Alexander Romanov to make it 1-0 at 1:35. Nelson’s turnover led to Ondrej Palat making it 2-0 at 8:09 and Palat notched a second goal at 15:28 of the third period. Nico Hischier added an empty-netter.