Teams that play soft and look for easy games make it extremely hard on themselves.
Hence, the Islanders’ 5-2 loss to the Oilers on Tuesday night at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum to conclude a season-opening, 1-2-0 homestand.
“We gave them way too much space,” Islanders coach Barry Trotz said. “I think we were looking for an easy game. It’s not a winning combination when the only two good things you did on the night were faceoffs and turn the puck over.”
James Neal scored four goals, two on the power play, for the Oilers and Islanders goalie Semyon Varlamov was pulled after allowing four goals on 19 shots. In all, it spoiled the NHL debut of defenseman Noah Dobson, the 12th overall pick in 2018, who set up Matt Martin’s goal to make it 5-2 at 13:32 of the third period.
Ex-Islander farmhand Mikko Koskinen stopped 25 shots for the Oilers (3-0-0), who opened a four-game road trip.
But, for the most part, the game was played in the Islanders’ zone as they never established a forecheck.
“We weren’t good in all three zones,” Martin said. “We weren’t playing fast and we weren’t moving the puck through the neutral zone and getting in and we weren’t able to get in on the forecheck and be physical and bring that element. It was very sloppy play by us. I don’t really know of any hits I necessarily passed up. We just didn’t get those opportunities because we weren’t playing the right way.”
The Islanders’ lackluster play was established in a sub-par first period and it marked the third straight game they’ve gotten off to a sluggish start. But in Sunday’s 4-1 win over the Jets, the Islanders rebounded with a three-goal second period, a 20-minute stretch Martin called “probably the best period of hockey we’ve played in the last year.”
“Tonight, we were predictable,” Martin added. “I think it’s probably a mindset thing.”
One question mark after last season’s playoff-qualifying success was whether the goaltending would be as good with Varlamov stepping in for Vezina Trophy finalist Robin Lehner.
Trotz did not single out Varlamov’s play, saying instead he kept the Islanders within 2-1 through the first period despite two goals from Neal after Anthony Beauvillier’s shorthanded goal opened the scoring at 14:14.
But Varlamov was in poor position on Neal’s second goal from the right, giving up the far side, and he also allowed a soft goal to the Capitals’ Jakub Vrana in Friday’s 2-1 season-opening loss.
“When this team is playing well, we’re on the same page everywhere in every aspect of the game,” said Derick Brassard, whose turnover led to Neal’s first goal. “Tonight, for whatever reason, we weren’t and when you face world-class players, they’re going to hurt you.”
Brock Nelson was another culprit, taking six minutes of penalties in the first period, including a double-minor for high-sticking that led to Neal’s second goal. He wound up benched for nearly 10 minutes in the second period and Nelson has 10 penalty minutes in three games.
“He’s a top player, he’s got to play minutes against top players and be productive,” Trotz said. “You can’t be productive with six minutes of penalties in the first period.”
Neal completed his natural hat trick with a second power-play goal at 6:31 of the second period, redirecting Leon Draisaitl’s feed to the crease. This time, it was Beauvillier in the box for cross-checking defenseman Darnell Nurse, a retaliation penalty after Nurse threw a hard shoulder check that leveled Leo Komarov.
Varlamov was pulled after Zack Kassian made it 4-1 at 8:46 of the second period.