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As NHL season restarts, could Islanders' defense be a valuable asset?

Islanders defenseman Adam Pelech skates with the puck

Islanders defenseman Adam Pelech skates with the puck ahead of goalie Semyon Varlamov during summer training camp at Northwell Health Ice Center on July 23, 2020. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

The final answer can’t be gleaned from a single exhibition game. But as the NHL embarks upon an unprecedented restart to its season after a four-month pause because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s a fair question whether a defensive-oriented team such as the Islanders could have an early advantage.

“You look at every year, the start of the year it seems like the offense is always a little sloppier, especially when you look at special teams, the power plays are maybe not clicking as good as it needs to be,” Islanders right wing Jordan Eberle said. “We’ve always been a good defensive team since Barry [Trotz] stepped in. The fact that we have that foundation, the fact that we know positionally how we need to play in order to win, if we can stick to that, it’s definitely going to help us win some games.”

The Islanders played the rival Rangers on Wednesday night at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto in the lone tune-up before the games count. The Islanders open their best-of-five qualifying series against the Panthers on Saturday afternoon.

The Islanders allowed an average of 2.8 goals over their 68 regular-season games. But that went from an average of 2.6 goals before top-pair defenseman Adam Pelech suffered an Achilles’ tendon injury on Jan. 2 to an average of 3.1 goals over their final 30 games (10-13-7) without him.

Pelech is back in the Islanders’ lineup, as his invaluable fourth-line center Casey Cizikas. The Islanders went 2-7-4 heading into the pause without Cizikas in the lineup after he suffered a left leg laceration.

The Islanders scored an average of 2.8 goals per game during the regular season.

The Panthers averaged both 3.3 goals scored and allowed over their 69 regular-season games.

So, simply, the Islanders must re-discover their defensive structure quickly and have goalies Semyon Varlamov and/or Thomas Greiss outplay the Panthers’ Sergei Bobrovsky.

“Our focus has been on ourselves,” Trotz said. “You know Florida’s strengths and you know places that we think we can take advantage of. Really, it’s going to come down to us and how we play. As a team, we normally find our identity right off the bat. It’s when you have a long season, your ups and downs, that you can get away from things like that. But when you’re fresh off the get go, you fall back on your foundations.”

This season, Trotz’s second as Islanders’ coach, the team went on a franchise record 15-0-2 run from Oct. 12, when they beat the Panthers, 3-2, in a shootout at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum, to Nov. 23.

Then again, because of the uniqueness of the current NHL circumstances, trying to predict future performances off past results may be a fool’s errand.

All teams are essentially starting from scratch again after the four-month pause and all games are being played in either Toronto or Edmonton, with all 24 participating teams quarantined in an arena/hotel/practice rink bubble in their hub city.

Which makes Islanders center Brock Nelson unsure whether a defensively-inclined team may have an advantage.

“I’d say it probably doesn’t matter either way, so much time has passed,” Nelson said. “You want to try and find a healthy combination of both as quickly as you can now. If you can tighten things up and lock things up defensively and get good goaltending, you can ride that. On the flip side of that, you want to try and get all your offensive weapons going. One team might have been an offensive powerhouse earlier in the season but so much time has passed, things may have changed a little bit.”

New York Sports