Maybe it is harsh to the Islanders that the seventh game of the 2022-23 season carries a high degree of urgency, but on the heels of a three-game losing streak, that is the case for their match Wednesday against the Rangers.
Last season, the Islanders had dug themselves into a hole too deep to escape by Jan. 1. Now, sitting in dead last in the Eastern Conference with a 2-4-0 record, the same thing could happen if they don’t turn it around quickly.
If the Islanders can make it to the trade deadline still in the playoff race, general manager Lou Lamoriello has the cap space and savvy to change the picture.
To do that, though, coach Lane Lambert’s group needs to come up with something much better than it has shown over the season’s first six games.
Outside of the penalty kill, which is operating at a 100 percent success rate, and the fourth line, which looks to be rejuvenated, the Islanders have played behind the eight-ball every time they have taken the ice against a team not in the sweepstakes for Connor Bedard, the projected top pick in the 2023 NHL Draft.
Yes, the Florida trip, in which the Islanders went 0-2, was against two high-level teams: the Lightning and the Panthers. They went up against two backup goaltenders — Brian Elliott and Spencer Knight — but failed to capitalize on that scheduling break. On Wednesday, they will likely get a third chance to face a backup, Jaroslav Halak, because the Rangers faced Colorado at home Tuesday night. That makes it even more imperative to stop the bleeding.
During their 3-2 loss at the Panthers on Sunday, the Islanders got almost nothing in the slot or below the hashes at five-on-five. That is consistent with the recent struggles of their forward group to produce at even strength. Lambert has handled that so far by shuffling lines and benching players — Josh Bailey at the Lightning, Anthony Beauvillier at the Panthers — presumably with the intention of sending a message to his players.
The line juggling worked when he first tried it in the second game of the season, against the Sharks. But over the last three games, it has carried a bit of an air of desperation, particularly because all four centers have yet to score a goal.
“There’s no concern the right pieces are here,” Lambert said following the loss to the Panthers. “It’s just a matter of generating a chemistry, and if things are not going the way we want to, we have to do something in terms of moving our guys around. They understand that. I thought we generated some stuff when we started moving people around today.”
No one expected that the opening night lines would remain in place for the entire season. But changing them mid-game, every game, does not appear to be a viable solution. Mathew Barzal (who signed a mammoth extension before the season) and his most common linemates, Zach Parise and Kyle Palmieri, have just one goal among them. That lack of production is particularly jarring for its continuance of a theme from last season, when the Islanders could not figure out how to get Barzal’s line going.
Due to the disappointment of missing the playoffs in 2021-22 and the lack of big changes to the roster this summer, getting off to a good start was perhaps more important to the Islanders than any other team. That ship likely has sailed because their next three games are against the Rangers, Hurricanes and Avalanche.
There is also the unfortunate reality that nearly every other team in the Eastern Conference that didn’t make the playoffs last season looks stronger now. The Sabers and Red Wings seem to have taken steps forward. The Senators added stars to their top six. The Flyers are off to a 4-0-1 start under John Tortorella. The Devils walked into UBS Arena last week and smacked the Islanders 4-1. Keeping pace is not going to be easy and every game matters, even this early on.
“Our game is going in the right direction,” Anders Lee said Sunday.
The Islanders can’t afford to wait much longer for it to get there.