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Islanders' defense contends with elite forwards in East Division

Adam Pelech of the Islanders keeps his eye

Adam Pelech of the Islanders keeps his eye on the puck during the second period as he defends against Jake Guentzel of the Penguins at Nassau Coliseum on Saturday. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Substitute David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron of the East Division-leading Bruins for the Penguins’ Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

Saturday night at Nassau Coliseum was just another game for the Islanders’ defense against elite forwards in the eight-team division. The Islanders entered the game on a five-game point streak (2-0-3) after Thursday's 4-3 shootout loss to the visiting Penguins.

True, all 31 NHL teams have dangerous, top-skill forwards. But this unique, shortened, 56-game season playing solely divisional opponents has emphasized just how tough the East is on the defense.

If it’s not the Bruins or Penguins’ elite talent, it’s the Rangers’ Mika Zibanejad and Artemi Panarin, or the Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin, or even the Sabres’ Taylor Hall and Jack Eichel or Devils’ Jack Hughes.

Typically, Islanders coach Barry Trotz matches his top-pair defensemen Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock against the East’s best.

"Especially in our division, there are some tough matchups, you go up and down the list, it’s pretty daunting," Trotz said. "(Pelech and Pulock) have come a long way. When I first tried to put them in that position a couple of years ago, they weren’t just quite ready for it, either mentally or they didn’t trust themselves. Now, I think they’ve just grown into that role and gotten very comfortable playing against top lines and they trust their abilities. Their confidence should be really good."

Trotz has stuck with the same three defense pairs through the first 13 games, including Nick Leddy and Scott Mayfield plus Andy Greene with Noah Dobson. Pulock (22:55) and Leddy (21:03) were leading the Islanders in average ice time entering Saturday, followed by Pelech (20:48).

But, defensively, there have been inconsistencies game to game even with the team entering Saturday 10th in the NHL with 31 goals against (2.39 per game). Goalie Semyon Varlamov had three shutouts in his first nine starts and the Islanders ranked ninth in allowing an average of 28.3 shots per game.

That included a 1-0 win over the Bruins in the home opener on Jan. 18. That stood as the Bruins’ lone regulation loss entering Saturday’s rematch with the Islanders.

"It felt like a playoff-style game," Pelech said. "We got great goaltending. We defended well. I think we just did a good job of limiting their chances and giving ourselves a chance to win. I think that’s the way we have to play if we want to be successful."

But the Islanders allowed 16 goals in their first four regulation losses (4.0 per game) entering Saturday.

"I think a lot of times it starts with our gaps," Greene said. "Gap control is always important. When you have a good gap, it seems to be more of a transition game or you’re stopping the rushes a little bit early, maybe at the blue line, forcing more dumps and then letting our systems take over there. Personally, and as a group, if you have good gaps that’s when everything else falls into place and it makes the game a little bit easier."

Of course, proper gaps do not just rely on the defensemen. It’s also dependent on how the forwards are supporting defensively to make sure all five skaters on the ice are playing as one unit.

"I think all the Ds are using a lot of communication on the ice and it makes it so much easier on the forwards when we’re coming back," center Jean-Gabriel Pageau said. "It’s something that we’ve practiced a lot lately, our tracking coming back. If we’re able to track the puck earlier, it gives us a chance to have a good gap and make some quicker decisions."

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