3. Islanders Strong on Faceoffs, Forecheck
The glutton of center talent on this New York Islanders team is part of what makes them so hard to play against. Brock Nelson, J-G Pageau, and Casey Cizikas are a fearsome trio to line up across from at the dots, and that showed through on Saturday at the Coli.
Nelson, Pageau, and Cizikas went a combined 28-15 at the faceoff dot in game four. Mathew Barzal, Leo Komarov, and Josh Bailey, the three other Islanders to take draws in the game, were a combined 5-2.
Sidney Crosby finished 6-12 on faceoffs while lining up primarily against Nelson. Jeff Carter went 6-9 facing off against Mathew Barzal and J-G Pageau. Teddy Blueger faced a combination of Pageau and Nelson and finished for 4-for-10 at the dot.
Evgeni Malkin, whose skin the Islanders were getting under all game long, finished his day 1-for-5 in the faceoff circle. Malkin lined up against Casey Cizikas for most of the day and had little success in finding ways to beat Casey in draws.
The faceoff successes are what Islanders fans envisioned when the team acquired Pageau and further stacked their center corps. Talks about what a strong team down the middle they would be when healthy have come to fruition.
But, more importantly, the Islanders forechecking returned in game four. Their forecheck had been mostly shredded by Pittsburgh’s slick puck-moving previously in this series, but on Saturday the Isles were a tight-checking, disciplined team who played well positionally to take away outlets and exit lanes.
That is the most crucial part of the Islanders gameplan. When they are playing well, it’s because they are giving opposing defensemen very little time to coordinate defensive zone exits, causing turnovers, and using their cycling to generate O-zone time.
We hadn’t seen enough of that in games one, two, or three, but we did in game four, and it will be important to keep that effort rolling into game five.
A lot of people continue to spread the false narrative that the 2020-21 Islanders were not a strong possession or analytics team. In fact, for three-quarters of the season, the opposite was true. The Islanders were a top-five team in xGF% between January 11 and April 1, and a big part of that was a strong cycle aided by dogged forechecking efforts.
If they are to take this series away from the Penguins, the best way to do so will be by forechecking, plugging gaps, and grinding down the opposition’s defense. It has driven this team to this point and will have to continue doing so through this opening round of the playoffs and beyond for the Islanders to find more postseason success.