Time is running short this regular season for Barry Trotz to find the right lineup combinations. But the Islanders coach also must give whatever lines he constructs time to build chemistry.
Trotz must juggle which priority takes precedence with the Islanders struggling to score.
"That’s an excellent question," Trotz said on Thursday. "You hope you find it early. Especially when you have new players. We’ve found you might fix one line, then you affect the other lines. We’ve gone through that process. I think we’re going to take a look and say these are going to be the lines for right now and go forward."
The Islanders opened a critical home-and-home series against the surging Rangers on Thursday night at Madison Square Garden battling to remain among the top four in the East Division and earn a third straight playoff berth under Trotz. After Thursday, and including Saturday’s rematch with the Rangers at Nassau Coliseum, the Islanders have six regular-season games remaining.
But the Islanders were coming off a three-game sweep by the Capitals in which they were shut out twice. They entered Thursday in a 2-4-1 skid and had scored one or fewer goals in five of those seven games.
Overall, they were 4-5-1 since acquiring top-nine forwards Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac from the Devils on April 7 and 12-9-1 since captain and top-line left wing Anders Lee suffered a season-ending torn right anterior cruciate ligament on March 11.
Zajac has been used everywhere from centering Mathew Barzal’s top line to playing on third-line center Jean-Gabriel Pageau’s wing. Trotz has acknowledged it’s taken longer than he expected to find a settled role for Zajac.
"You look where they would fit without breaking it all up," Trotz said. "We’re at a point where we’re familiar with what guys seem to work best with each other. We’re going to sort of settle it down a bit in terms of the looks of different people."
But if Trotz is going to settle into some more lasting line combinations, those trios will have to reward Trotz’s patience with some production.
If not, the Islanders could easily slip out of a playoff spot.
"We understand the situation as far as what it means in the standings and what we need to do," Jordan Eberle said. "I don’t think we’re looking to try and put up six or seven [goals]. We’re just trying to play our game and find a way to win the game, whether it’s 1-0, 2-1. It doesn’t matter. We’ve got to find a way to win the game.
"We’ve got an opportunity against the Rangers," Eberle added. "We’ve got an opportunity to spread ourselves and solidify ourselves in a playoff position."
Goal production would go a long way toward that, though.
"I don’t think there’s a certain method toward why the puck doesn’t go in some nights," Eberle said. "We’re creating chances. I think that’s always the biggest thing. Sometimes you’ve just got to get back to basics. You’ve got to try and create secondary opportunities around the net. The goalie can’t save what he can’t see."
Notes & quotes: The NHL fined Barzal $2,000 for diving/embellishment against the Capitals on April 22, going down to the ice after Carl Hagelin put his stick into Barzal’s midsection at 4:47 of the second period. Hagelin was not penalized for hooking. Barzal had received a first warning for diving/embellishment against the Flyers on Jan. 30 . . . Concrete was poured on Thursday for the ice floor at under-construction UBS Arena at Belmont Park. It must cure for 60 days before it can fully bear weight.
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