The NY Islanders entered their first-round series against the Carolina Hurricanes with the 30th-ranked power-play in the NHL during the regular season. When you look at the PP rankings, the Islanders are surrounded by teams that were long out of playoff contention and have had their eyes and hearts set on the Connor Bedard sweepstakes for months.
It's somewhat remarkable they found their way into the postseason having to depend almost entirely on their play at even strength throughout the playoff push in the final two months of the season. The unit struggled mightily regardless of the opponent and, in this series, is faced with converting against the second-best penalty kill team in the league at 84.4%.
A less-than-ideal match-up to say the least and Game 1 showed us why.
Entering the game, there was the reason for optimism with the return of Mathew Barzal. The Islanders' power play had success during the brief time Barzal played with Bo Horvat with the man advantage. Barzal's play-making skills and Horvat's ability to find and create space should complement each other well.
On the first power play of the night, there were encouraging signs. Barzal was able to enter the zone, and the team was able to get set up long enough to create chances, including when Horvat's pass came in a little too tight to an all-alone Anders Lee in front of the net. The team carried the momentum from that power play and had their best stretch of hockey during the game over the next several minutes.
However, by the end of the game, any positive feelings you had about the power play evaporated as their next three looked too reminiscent of what we grew accustomed to in the regular season, as they did not register a shot during any of those three opportunities.
"It came down a little bit to zone entries at times," head coach Lane Lambert said of the power play. "We know they have a pretty good hard stand. We potentially got a little stubborn at times trying to bring the puck in, but overall I thought we moved it pretty well, certainly early."
Things were especially bad on their final power play of the night. After Brent Burns took a penalty late in the third period, the Islanders were handed an opportunity to tie the game. As Kevin Kurz detailed in The Athletic, the Islanders were unable to carry the puck into the zone and turned over the puck time and time again rather than trying to put it deep and win a puck battle along the boards.
The Carolina penalty kill is ultra-aggressive, as repeatedly pointed out during the MSG Networks Broadcast by Brendan Burke and Butch Goring. They force you to make plays in a decisive fashion and dare you to make plays. They are not going to give you easy zone entries and allow you to set up, and if you do, the puck carrier will be pressured almost instantaneously.
“We gotta move the puck a little quicker,” Lambert said of what's needed to improve. “I talk about it all the time; they don’t give you a lot of time and space. That’s their M.O. They’re up on you, so you gotta move quickly in transition.”
As last night showed, special teams can make all the difference in the post-season. It did in Game 1 between the Islanders and Hurricanes, and it played out that way in other series as well. The Isles don't need their power play to transform to great during this series; it just needs to be consistently competent and not a lost two minutes that actually sucks momentum away from the team rather than provide it an opportunity to score in a series against a team where goals are tough to come by.