Things got a lot more real for the Islanders on Sunday.
They set their post-regular season roster and traveled, along with the 23 other teams participating in the NHL’s return to play, to their hub city. A season placed on pause on March 12 because of the COVID-19 pandemic will resume by the end of the week.
“I feel like we’ve been talking about it and going over the process for the last three, four months now,” Mathew Barzal said before the Islanders departed for their quarantined arena/hotel bubble in Toronto. “For it to kind of be happening so fast now, I’m pretty excited just to get settled in. We knew it was coming for a while now. I’m more so excited to get all set up and get the ball running.”
The Islanders have 30 active players on their roster: three goalies, 10 defensemen and 17 forwards. Forwards Kieffer Bellows and Oliver Wahlstrom, defenseman Grant Hutton and goalie Jakub Skarek were the training camp cuts.
Goalie Ilya Sorokin, selected in the third round in 2014, is expected to join the team in Toronto after signing a one-year, entry-level deal for $925,000 for this season and a one-year, $2 million extension for next season on July 13. He will count toward the 31-player maximum though he will not play. The NHL ruled that draft picks who signed before the resumption of this season will not be eligible until next season.
The Islanders, seeded seventh in the Eastern Conference, will face the 10th-seeded Panthers in a best-of-five qualifying series beginning on Saturday at Scotiabank Arena. They will play the Rangers in an exhibition game on Wednesday in Toronto.
“I don’t think necessarily we’re going to be taking it like a playoff game,” Barzal said of facing the Rangers. “We’re lucky to have one exhibition game to see where we’re at, clean things up quickly.”
Barzal’s top line with Eberle and Anders Lee had a very strong training camp and often dominated shifts during the five intrasquad scrimmages coach Barry Trotz conducted during the 11 practice days.
“Ebs looks really good and Leesy, especially, he’s been ripping the puck in,” Barzal said. “I think we found our chemistry. I think we’re all getting more comfortable. At the end of the season, we were playing our best hockey. We’re just hoping to get back to that level and intensity and bring that into Toronto.”
After being limited to two assists in 13 playoff games for the Oilers in 2017 in his first postseason experience, Eberle was one of the Islanders’ best playoff performers last year. He had a goal in each game of the Islanders’ first-round sweep over the Penguins and finished with four goals and five assists in eight games after a four-game loss to the Hurricanes in the second round.
Playing in a hub city without fans in the arena will be a much different experience.
“As soon as the puck drops and it all means something, the energy and the competitiveness will jump right in,” Eberle said. “I’m not sure it will be quite similar to playoff hockey. There’s such an advantage to having home-ice advantage, the crowd. The team that’s going to win the Stanley Cup is the team that’s going to adapt the quickest.”
Islanders’ official roster
Semyon Varlamov, Thomas Greiss and Christopher Gibson are the Islanders’ goalies.
Sebastian Aho, Johnny Boychuk, Noah Dobson, Andy Greene, Thomas Hickey, Nick Leddy, Scott Mayfield, Adam Pelech, Ryan Pulock and Devon Toews are the defensemen.
The forwards are Barzal, Eberle, Lee, Josh Bailey, Anthony Beauvillier, Derick Brassard, Casey Cizikas, Cal Clutterbuck, Michael Dal Colle, Ross Johnston, Otto Koivula, Leo Komarov, Tom Kuhnhackl, Andrew Ladd, Matt Martin, Brock Nelson and Jean-Gabriel Pageau.