Islanders: Three Takeaways from Dominating 5-2 Victory over Sabres

UNIONDALE, NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 22: Brock Nelson #29 of the New York Islanders skates against the Buffalo Sabres at the Nassau Coliseum on February 22, 2021 in Uniondale, New York. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
UNIONDALE, NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 22: Brock Nelson #29 of the New York Islanders skates against the Buffalo Sabres at the Nassau Coliseum on February 22, 2021 in Uniondale, New York. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Matt Martin #17 and Jordan Eberle #7 of the New York Islanders. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Matt Martin #17 and Jordan Eberle #7 of the New York Islanders. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images) /

The New York Islanders set the table for their weekend back-to-back with the Buffalo Sabres by grabbing a 5-2 Thursday night win in convincing fashion.

The New York Islanders are now 4-0-0 against the Buffalo Sabres in 2020-21 after Thursday night’s 5-2 win at the Coliseum. Matt Martin scored twice, and Ilya Sorokin made 16 saves as the Islanders encountered little resistance and cruised to a win.

Here are three takeaways from a very strong start to this three-game set vs. Buffalo.

1. Islanders’ Fourth Line were Fantastic Throughout

Yeah, I had no choice but to start this three takeaways piece with last night’s fourth line performance of the season. Also, I say the fourth line were fantastic because this wasn’t just a case of a couple of Matt Martin shots with eyes beating Sabres goalie Jonas Johansson, it was a thoroughly complete 5v5 performance by an Islanders line that has struggled during some stretches of this season.

Barry Trotz chose to play the Cizikas line, or maybe I should say the Martin line, against the Sabres’ top trio of Jack Eichel, Sam Reinhart, and Victor Olofsson. That isn’t a matchup I would’ve felt comfortable with entering Thursday, but it obviously worked out really well.

I mean, there’s been a lot of debate about just how good Eichel is lately, and we won’t be getting into that here, but suffice to say he’s good. And the Islanders fourth line had their way with him and his linemates all night long.

Here’s a stat for you: 60% of all shot attempts belonged to the Sabres when Jack Eichel was on the ice but Matt Martin wasn’t. When Martin was on the ice against Eichel? Well, only about 24% of all shot attempts were for the Sabres. That means SOG, missed shots, and blocked shots: 60% for the Sabres with Eichel and without Martin on. A shade under 24% with both Eichel and Martin on.

The Islanders had an 8-1 advantage in scoring chances, and a 3-0 edge in high-danger scoring chances when the Martin line hit the ice at 5v5. Those were minutes mostly spent against the Eichel line, and very clearly mostly spent in the Buffalo zone.

Almost 93% of the xG share favored the Islanders when the fourth line was on at 5v5. Again, against the Eichel line. The actual goal share was 2-0 Islanders in that scenario.

This was a truly vintage fourth-line performance and a welcome one. Matty Marts with two goals, Clutter with five hits, and Zeeker winning six of his eights face-offs in all situations. More of this, please.

Oliver Wahlstrom #26 of the New York Islanders. (Photo by Kevin Hoffman/Getty Images)
Oliver Wahlstrom #26 of the New York Islanders. (Photo by Kevin Hoffman/Getty Images) /

2. Islanders Power-Play Looked Good Despite an 0-for-3 Night

Yeah, the Islanders power-play didn’t convert an opportunity into a goal last night. But, it wasn’t due to a lack of good chances. That isn’t something we would’ve been able to say six weeks ago. At that time, around mid-January, the Islanders were in the midst of a poor stretch on the man advantage which looked all too familiar.

They struggled to gain the offensive zone blue line, they struggled to hold onto the puck, and they struggled to get set up in their 1-3-1 power-play formation. Forget about scoring goals, if you can’t do any of those three things, you aren’t even going to generate chances or shots. And they weren’t generating them.

That wasn’t the case on Thursday.

The Islanders generated a lot of shots, 10 of them to be exact, and a lot of high-danger scoring chances at 5v4 as well. The first one came less than ten seconds into their first power-play when the Isles executed a set-play that they’ve really liked to use this season. Josh Bailey fed Brock Nelson a pass in the slot which Nelson tried to redirect into the net, but Johansson saved it.

But, that play pretty much set the tone for how the Islanders power-play opportunities were going to go on Thursday. They threatened a lot from inside the Sabres’ slot.

When they needed to they were good at gaining the opposing blue line too. Again, six weeks ago we’re having a very different conversation about this same exact subject. Six weeks ago, if either one of the Islanders’ power-play units got kicked out of the O-zone, that was it. Mail-in the rest of that man advantage, it was pretty much over.

That was particularly baffling to me because of some of the excellent puck transporters the Islanders have. Mathew Barzal is a top-three in the NHL, elite-level talent at carrying the puck and gaining controlled zone entries. Nick Leddy, with his smooth skating and excellent puck-shielding, is also very good at transitioning and creating zone entries with puck control.

But, for whatever reason, the Islanders just couldn’t gain the offensive zone in 5v4 situations with any degree of competency. That’s a problem that goes back to Barry Trotz’s first season on Long Island when Scott Gomez was running the Islanders’ power-play.

I still think the Islanders do a lot of standing around in these moments. Waiting for the puck transporter to gain the blue line and feed someone a pass so the rest of the unit can get set up. That’s not great. But, they have definitely become more supportive of their puck carrier, and that’s important.

So, although they didn’t score a power-play goal on Thursday, I think we can take comfort in the fact that the Islanders power-play is showing improvement finally. The Sabres penalty kill is ninth-ranked in the NHL, and the Isles created scoring chances, zone entries, and a lot of zone time against them. It was a positive night for this unit, even if it didn’t result in a goal.

New York Islanders goaltender Ilya Sorokin (30). Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports
New York Islanders goaltender Ilya Sorokin (30). Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports /

3. Thoughts on Ilya Sorokin’s Performance

I don’t know about all of you, but when I heard Ilya Sorokin was starting on Thursday I definitely got an extra shot of energy for the game. There’s just something about hearing that Sorokin is starting that instantly adds a new layer of intrigue to the game.

Obviously, there’s the fact that we waited all this time for Sorokin to make the jump to North America that makes his each and every move so fascinating right now. But, it’s also about the fact that we’re watching him grow into the North American game before our eyes with every successive start.

Player development is not a linear process. Scouts, draft experts, pundits, and analytics nerds, they’ll all repeat that phrase to you. That’s because it is true. Progress isn’t linear. There is no pattern, one size fits all solution, or set-in-stone playbook when it comes to adjusting a player to the top level of professional ice hockey in the world.

Let me just say that I didn’t think Sorokin was bad on Thursday night. I thought he was fine. He wasn’t worked a whole lot, and sometimes those nights can be really hard on goalies because they don’t get to settle into a rhythm. In the end, he only made 16 saves for the whole night because the Islanders played very well in front of him.

That second-period rebound that Taylor Hall scored off of was a bad one. If you kick a rebound into that location at any level you’re probably going to get scored on, and that’s what happened.

But I also wouldn’t put that play entirely on Sorokin. Sure, he gave up a bad rebound. But, Ryan Pulock was the one who turned the puck over at his own blue line, a fact I’m sure Barry Trotz pointed out to him. Taylor Hall had a lot to do with this one too. His forechecking and good stick positioning broke up Pulock’s outlet pass in the first place.

It was also just a smart play by Cody Eakin, and a deceptively difficult one to execute. Eakin’s quick, low snapshot hit Sorokin’s pad in exactly the right place to create that rebound, and Hall buried it before Adam Pelech could do anything to clear the puck away.

It’s the details that make a goalie great. Sometimes those details are granular. Sorokin is still getting the details of his game cleaned up, and considering this was his sixth NHL start and he’s coming off back-to-back shutouts that’s okay. Give him time, and enjoy the process.

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