It’s not a coincidence that the Islanders looked the best they have so far in the preseason on Saturday night, given they put out something close to an opening-night lineup against the Rangers at UBS Arena.
We got a good look at a presumptive top three lines, at a possible starting six defensemen to begin the season and a full game from Semyon Varlamov, who wasn’t terribly busy.
Here are some takeaways from what happened on Saturday and where things stand with three more preseason games left.
Is it Barvat or Horzal?
The Mathew Barzal–Bo Horvat combination drove a lot of what the Islanders did on Saturday, which is a very, very good sign. Barzal’s move to the right side hasn’t fazed him and he showed why in this one, swiping pucks off Rangers sticks at both blue lines and generally looking like his old, dangerous self. Barzal was in the middle of the ice a lot, weaving and dangling, and Horvat read off his creative linemate very well.
Simon Holmstrom was on the left side and held his own. The two top-liners likely need a more dangerous third wheel there, so Oliver Wahlstrom may get his turn next week. Holmstrom may not be a regular in this lineup but he’s shown that he’s a solid option, getting some penalty-kill work too on Saturday. But the main top-line duo was humming and that’s good news.
Lines 2 and 3 sharp too
As we look at the key combos on the middle two lines, Pierre Engvall and Brock Nelson were good together on Saturday with Hudson Fasching on the right and the Anders Lee-J-G Pageau-Julien Gauthier third line had its moments as well, including the opening goal.
Kyle Palmieri’s mysterious and now-lengthy absence means that the second line doesn’t look exactly how Lane Lambert would prefer right now and likely into the start of the season, unless Palmieri returns soon. Fasching might be better suited to the third-line spot down the road but he’s an OK placeholder for now. If the Islander coaching staff likes Holmstrom enough to keep him in the lineup, perhaps Wahlstrom gets some time with Engvall and Nelson next week.
Lee-Pageau is developing some nice chemistry as evidenced on that opening goal Saturday. As you’d expect from the second-longest serving Islander captain, Lee’s transition into a third-line, 15-17 minute a-night player hasn’t caused much issue. Gauthier’s main problem in three years as a Ranger was maintaining consistency. With Palmieri out, Gauthier should get a real look in this spot and he did not seem out of place on Saturday.
Are these the D pairs?
Adam Pelech and Noah Dobson. Alexander Romanov and Ryan Pulock. Samuel Bolduc and Scott Mayfield. This looks like a defense the Islanders could roll out on Oct. 14. Sebastian Aho will be in the mix along with Bolduc, Robin Salo may get some looks over the final preseason games as well and he is no longer waiver-exempt (neither is Bolduc). So there are some decisions to be made down the depth chart.
But the top four could indeed look this way. In brief minutes last season Pelech-Dobson posted strong metrics — 133:41 on the ice together and 59.5 percent of the shot attempts — while Romanov-Pulock had more minutes and less success (319:53, 44.4 percent of the shot attempts). Pulock slogged through much of last season and Romanov is still looked at as a more unfinished product, so the hope is clearly that they can both be better.
Much like the game Barzal had, Pelech looked to be at the top of his form on Saturday, keeping Rangers forwards away from the net and closing gaps extremely well. If Pulock can rebound it does make sense to keep those two split and have a more versatile top four.
Before the Rangers made their late push on Saturday the Islanders put on a neutral-zone defense clinic, not allowing the Rangers much possession. This wasn’t a very complete Rangers team, especially without their three real puck-movers on defense, but the Islanders were hounding pucks in the neutral and offensive zones extremely well.
Next week, with two games against a Devils team that should be close to a regular-season roster, will tell more about how the Islanders can defend up the ice. But they looked sharp on Saturday.
A bit too much standing around in the defensive zone during that third period. Varlamov will want that first Rangers goal back and that’s seven goals against in five preseason periods for him — no matter how they go in, that’s a little high for this early and against unfinished rosters. Bolduc still looks like he’s thinking too much at times rather than playing smoothly. It’s going to happen no matter who is in that spot and the big question is whether Mayfield can be reliable enough to compensate for the inexperience of his partner.
Outside of the brutal first 3:10 at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday, this was a decent week for the Isles.
(Top photo of Mathew Barzal: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)