Islanders open make-or-break stretch with ‘best game of the year’

ELMONT, N.Y. — One common tactic that NHL coaches typically employ, both for player evaluation and motivation, is breaking up the 82-game season into smaller segments. Barry Trotz looked at the season in three-game segments. Some coaches look at it in five-game segments. Others, weekly.

Lane Lambert said Tuesday morning he prefers 10-game segments.

“Obviously, we’re trying to make adjustments and improve on a game-to-game basis, but certainly there’s some segment action there,” Lambert said.

But another segment that every NHL coach and player is focusing on is the stretch of games between the just-completed, three-day Christmas break and the upcoming All-Star break/bye week, which, for the Islanders, begins in a month after a home game against Vegas on Jan. 28.

It’s a stretch of games that could make or break the season for a number of teams, particularly those in the playoff bubble. Teams like the Islanders.

When asked about it, Lambert revealed, perhaps inadvertently, that he’s well aware of the calendar already.

“I think there’s 17 games until that break again, so it’s an important stretch of time for us, no question about it,” Lambert said.

He’s right, of course, that the Islanders have 17 games before they get another chance to put their feet up. The first, Tuesday at home against Pittsburgh, went about as well as it possibly could. The Islanders played one of their most complete games of the season, smoking the Penguins 5-1.

They outshot Pittsburgh 43-20 for the game. The Penguins had just eight shots after the first intermission. Mathew Barzal and Anders Lee had two goals apiece, New York got contributions from up and down the lineup, and Ilya Sorokin made 19 saves.

“That might have been our best game of the year,” Barzal said.

Said Lambert, “From start to finish, I thought we were dialed in and doing things the right way.”

It will get tougher. After the Islanders host the lowly Blue Jackets on Thursday, they’ll go right back on the road for a four-game Western Conference swing, beginning with the surprising Kraken on New Year’s Day. Of the 15 games they have on the schedule to kick off 2023 and lead into the break, only three are against teams that aren’t really in the playoff race — Vancouver, Montreal and Ottawa. They have three sets of back-to-backs, two of which require travel.

It’s the time of year when teams that are true playoff contenders start to act like it. And, vice versa.

“After the Christmas break, things start to tighten up a lot,” Noah Dobson said. “The points get more important, you don’t have much room for error. The next stretch until the All-Star break is really important for us.”

Said Zach Parise: “You feel like you lose two, three games — well, two other teams in our division won six in a row, so you’re like, holy cow. … You just really can’t take games off.”

Parise didn’t say it, but taking games off happened too frequently for the Islanders before Christmas. While there were some thrilling, come-from-behind wins against top teams like the Avalanche and Rangers, and some convincing victories in Carolina and New Jersey, there were also two regulation losses apiece to Arizona and Nashville, and a lifeless defeat in Philadelphia on Nov. 29 that halted a 10-game Flyers losing streak.

The Islanders won’t survive letting points like that slip away in the second half, especially considering how competitive the division is shaping up to be. There is just a four-point separation between the second-place Devils (46 points) and the sixth-place Islanders (42 points.) The Capitals have 44, while Pittsburgh and the Rangers each have 43.

“You look at our division, it’s crazy tight,” Dobson said.

Said Barzal: “The race is so tight, it really is. It’s crazy how tight it is. Seems like one week, you’re a lock for the playoffs, the next week you could be out of the playoffs. Just crucial wins against good teams.”

That means no more squandering points, like they did in Arizona on Dec. 16, when they blew an early 2-0 lead in a 5-4 loss in their inaugural appearance at Mullett Arena, or Thursday at Madison Square Garden, when they held a 3-2 lead after two periods but lost in regulation 5-3.

Lambert mentioned after the Rangers game, “As we continue to go forward, we’ll continue to work on and lock down our defensive game.” That was a staple of previous versions of the Islanders, and although it’s not necessarily a problem — the Islanders are 13-1-0 when leading after two periods — there have been too many moments this season when they’ve been caught running around in their own zone for lengthy stretches.

That wasn’t an issue against the Penguins, just like it wasn’t against the Panthers on Friday, also a 5-1 win.

“I think we want to get to that point where (the other team says), ‘If we’re trailing by one against the Islanders in the third, it’s going to be tough,’” Parise said. “You want to have that aura about your team.”

Perhaps they’re getting that back now. But they also have an injury situation that is getting worse by the day.

Joining that significant list Tuesday was Oliver Wahlstrom, who left in the first period after successive collisions with Chad Ruhwedel, whom he ran, and Pierre-Olivier Joseph, who then ran him.

While leading scorer Brock Nelson and Casey Cizikas were able to play against the Penguins (Nelson left Friday’s game after getting hit in the head with a puck, while Cizikas missed that game entirely), the injured list is still considerable. Adam Pelech (upper body), Cal Clutterbuck (upper body), Kyle Palmieri (upper body), Semyon Varlamov (lower body) and Simon Holmstrom (undisclosed) are all still sidelined, with no timetables to return.

Lambert revealed that Clutterbuck and Palmieri have resumed skating, although neither took part in Tuesday’s pregame session. Pelech’s absence has to be considered especially worrying at this point, after he slammed his head into the boards Dec. 6 in a game against the Blues and hasn’t been seen since.

While the Islanders may have the personnel to handle spot duty, including goalie Cory Schneider, who has played well enough in goal in Bridgeport this season, it’s questionable whether the depth can carry the load for the established roster players who still could be weeks away from returning.

But they are still making a mark — particularly Hudson Fasching, who took Wahlstom’s place Tuesday on Barzal’s line with Josh Bailey and had an impact. Fasching assisted on Barzal’s first goal, and his hard work in the offensive zone helped to generate his second, too.

“He was physical, winning battles,” Barzal said. “He’s got a good head for the game. Easy to play with.”

Said Lee: “It’s great to see (Fasching) come in and show that immediately. He’s played some really great hockey, and tonight that line was flying around and making small little area plays which are high skill. And he was making them.”

That will have to continue, as will the solid play of the veterans, who led the way in a key division win over one of their primary rivals. The Islanders will see the Penguins three more times this season, and all of them will likely be tremendously important.

“I think we’re in a good spot,” Ryan Pulock said. “We’re in the middle of a playoff race with a lot of teams around us. It’s going to be on us to go out there and win and collect points, and find a way to get in.”

(Photo of Sebastian Aho, Scott Mayfield and Mathew Barzal: Dennis Schneidler / USA Today)