Islanders coach Barry Trotz plans to start the regular season with his top line from the end of last season intact: Mathew Barzal between captain Anders Lee and right wing Jordan Eberle. And he knows he can’t separate Casey Cizikas from wings Cal Clutterbuck and Matt Martin.
The other two lines? Well, there’s still plenty of jockeying for position with three preseason games remaining before the regular-season opener against the Capitals on Oct. 4 at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum.
Saturday night’s 4-3 loss to the Devils at Prudential Center marked the preseason debut of the Lee-Barzal-Eberle trio. Barzal and Eberle played with burly Ross Johnston in Tuesday night’s 3-2 overtime win over the Flyers at the Coliseum.
“You saw the way Jordan played in the playoffs; that helps Barzy take the next step,” Trotz said. “The guys had a real good playoffs. They all have these glass ceilings and they get through these glass ceilings by how they play in the playoffs. So we’ll start that way and build the other lines around it. Clutterbuck-Martin-Cizikas is one we can’t take apart. They have to go everywhere together.”
The top line was a key factor in the Islanders’ four-game sweep of the Penguins in the first round of the playoffs, with Eberle scoring once in each game, before the Hurricanes swept them in the second round.
Eberle had four goals and five assists in the eight games. Barzal had two goals and five assists and Lee had a goal and three assists.
The three certainly looked comfortable against the Devils, spending many of their shifts in the offensive zone and working together on the first power-play unit.
Barzal, who had two assists against the Flyers, tied the score at 2-2 at 10:19 of the second period. He found open space to goalie Cory Schneider’s left and redirected defenseman Thomas Hickey’s feed from the top of the left faceoff circle. His fluid skating made him a threat throughout the game.
“It’s an opportunity to work out all your kinks and get back to where you were the prior season,” Lee said of the preseason. “We’re all familiar with one another, so those things happen pretty quick. It’s more timing and in-game stuff than it is a chemistry thing.”
Lee said he expects improvement from Barzal this season simply because of the experience he’s gained through his first two NHL seasons.
Eberle repeatedly has spoken of how much more comfortable he felt in Trotz’s system in the latter part of the season.
“When you get comfortable and you understand everything that’s going on, it takes all that thinking out of the game,” Lee said. “When guys aren’t thinking as much, they get a lot better. I think you just saw Ebs really open himself up and take his game to the next level. You saw that in the playoff run, how big a key he was for our team. If he plays like that, we’re going to have a heck of a season.”
Notes & quotes: Starting goalie Thomas Greiss allowed three goals on 11 shots in two periods . . . The Islanders held a 45-21 shot advantage . . . Otto Koivula tied the score at 3-3 at 5:59 of the third period, snapping a shot past Schneider after Tom Kuhnhackl forced a turnover . . . Leo Komarov made it 1-1 at 14:25 of the first period, setting a screen in front of Schneider and tipping defenseman Noah Dobson’s shot from the right point . . . Simon Holmstrom, selected 23rd overall in June, made his preseason debut after missing time at the start of training camp with a sore ankle. “I think you learn something every day, especially in a game,” the Swedish right wing said. “You learn to be on the rink and how to process it.” . . . The Islanders are off on Sunday and face the Red Wings on Monday night at the Coliseum.