The New York Islanders fanbase received the first part of the good news they've been hoping for over a month as GM Lou Lamoriello announced that star center Mathew Barzal will resume skating this weekend. The timetable from there remains unknown, but with the end of the regular season drawing near, around now felt necessary for the 25-year-old to make a return for the very end of the season or the start of the first round of the playoffs.
"It's good. He's getting closer, that's what we've been waiting for," said head coach Lane Lambert.
If Barzal can return for the start of the playoffs (provided the Islanders can hold onto one of the two Wild Card spots in the Eastern Conference), it would round out their offense and give their power play a much-needed boost at a time when goals become even harder to come by, and games are often decided by special teams.
In his absence, the team, behind Ilya Sorokin and a return to a more structured, defensive game, have played their most consistent hockey of the season, allowing them to move into the top Wild Card spot in the East with six games to play.
But there's no player that would benefit more from Barzal's return than Bo Horvat. "It's great news, said Horvat upon the news of Barzal resuming skating. "I think he's itching to get back, and we're all itching for him to get back as well. He brings a lot to the team, a lot of offensive skill, and he'll bring even more life to what we got right now."
Acquired on Jan. 30 in the middle of a career offensive year from the Vancouver Canucks, Horvat showed instant chemistry with Barzal on a line that included Anders Lee and had Barzal moving to wing. It was a small sample size, but Horvat averaged 3.5 scoring chances a game playing alongside the dynamic Barzal. But since Barzal went down with an injury in Boston, Horvat has scored just three times and has just one goal (an empty netter) and two assists since Feb. 26.
He's done other things to help the team win, taking important face-offs, playing two-way hockey, and chipping in on the penalty kill when needed, but there comes a point when your goal scorers need to score. The emergence of the Brock Nelson, Kyle Palmieri, and Pierre Engvall line has provided cover for Horvat's line that has gone through a carousel of wingers in recent games as Lambert tries to find some combination to work. Simon Holmstrom, Josh Bailey, Hudson Fasching, and others have all had opportunities, but nothing has stuck. Even Lee was moved off the Horvat line and was moved alongside JG Pageau in an effort to create consistent offense from another line.
"We were familiar with each other a little bit before, but our games kinda compliment each other. He likes to hang on to pucks and I like to find open space, said Horvat of why he and Barzal found early success. "He's a really good passer and I'm just trying to get into open spots for him and he was finding me. Hopefully we can continue that chemistry when he gets back."
If the Islanders can get Barzal and his chemistry with Horvat back for the start of the playoffs, they become an even more dangerous team capable of making a deep run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.