Islanders’ power-play woes — video analysis

RALEIGH, N.C. — We have talked and talked and talked some more about the Islanders’ power play, and yes, we are going to talk about it again, because the plain fact of the matter is this is not likely to be a deep playoff run if the Islanders cannot at least get a few chances at five-on-four.

You already know what happened in Game 1 against the Hurricanes, when the Islanders got four total shots on net over eight power-play minutes and lost 2-1 largely as a result. So let’s dig into the why and try to parse how the Islanders might actually try to fix this thing.

To the tape:

1. The Islanders have one primary way of getting a controlled entry in the middle of the ice … and one player who can do it successfully.

When the Islanders talk about how the return of Mathew Barzal will help them enter the zone cleanly at five-on-four, this is why.

In a vacuum, the best way to enter the zone is: a) with possession of the puck, versus dumping and chasing, and b) through the middle of the ice.

Schematically, the way the Isles usually try to do that is via drop pass, with Noah Dobson leaving the puck in the middle of the ice and letting a trailer pick up a head of steam before getting to the blue line.

Here’s what that looks like when it works:

via MSG Network

Three Carolina defenders have their eyes on Barzal before he crosses the blue line. He gives it to Anders Lee along the wall with space. Lee plays it back up high to Brock Nelson, and suddenly, the Islanders are set up, Carolina is not and they can generate a chance.

The problem is twofold.

First, Barzal is the only skater the Islanders have who can consistently pull it off. That’s a big part of why the power play was so bad with him out.

Second, even with him back, it’s not all that hard to adjust to — especially when the Isles are so dependent on it.

Islanders on a power play against Carolina in the 2023 playoffs.
via MSG Network

The biggest difference in these two clips is the low defender. Brent Burns trails Barzal in the first clip, giving Lee space to work along the wall. The second time around, Brent Pesce steps up to close off that same space to Bo Horvat. He tries to rim it around, but it doesn’t work and the puck gets cleared.

2. As a result, the Islanders end up playing dump-and-chase hockey on the power play.

At five-on-five, the Isles are a good dump-and-chase team — it’s how they generate a forecheck and get to their game.

At five-on-four, though, you’re not trying to generate offense via forecheck. You need some skill and passing to get the defense moving.

When the Isles struggle to get the puck in clean with control, they revert to dumping and chasing. That tends to mean spending a lot of time along the walls trying to win puck battles. Which, even when the Isles do keep the puck, means they’re bleeding time off the clock.

They fell victim to this late in Game 1 when, desperately needing a power-play goal to tie the game, the Islanders spent 10 seconds trying to win the puck along the wall. They won the battle, but doubtless the Hurricanes were thrilled to force the Islanders to spend so much time doing anything but threatening the net.

Islanders see the puck stuck along the wall on the power play.
via MSG Network

A related note: Whether by design or not, the Islanders had a tendency during Game 1 to leave a winger up high.

Pay attention to Nelson in this next clip. He’s out of the camera frame for most of it, up on the right point. That positioning gives Lee an outlet to keep the puck in when he’s in trouble, but the Isles effectively are playing four-on-four hockey here with Nelson out of the play.

They’re trying to win battles instead of threatening the net, the puck stays on the walls instead of in high-danger areas and the Hurricanes clear it.

The Islanders struggle on the power play.
via MSG Network

3. All of this makes the Isles heavily dependent on winning faceoffs.

It’s probably not a surprise that the best power-play chance the Islanders got in Game 1 came immediately off a faceoff win (ironically on a very similar play to what the Hurricanes ran to go up 1-0 on their own power play).

The Isles are well-equipped to win faceoffs with Horvat, and every team of course has a higher chance to score after winning a draw. But this is an extreme dependency because as soon as the opposition clears the puck once, getting it back in and getting set up becomes a monumental task.

4. When they do get set up, there’s not enough movement.

Here’s the Game 1 sequence that, if you are an Islanders fan, probably made you chuck your remote at the wall and walk out of the room:

The Islanders fail to move enough on a power play.
via MSG Network

One player is moving without the puck: Nelson. And he is going up high, away from the play.

That means Carolina’s penalty kill does not need to move. The Hurricanes can stay in passing and shooting lanes, forcing the Islanders to react to them instead of vice versa. Predictably, they get a stick on the puck and clear it.

Good power plays move the puck. Period. Here’s one of the power-play goals the Islanders scored in February before Barzal got hurt:

The Islanders score on the power play vs. Ottawa
via SportsNet

The Isles get the Senators moving, Nelson gets left alone on the right side and he gets a clean one-timer. That’s how this needs to look.

Will it be harder against Carolina’s penalty kill, which finished the regular season ranked second in the league? You bet it will be.

But on Monday, the Islanders made it too easy for the Hurricanes. That can’t happen again.

The Islanders need to get more creative with how they enter the puck into the zone, and they need to get the puck moving once it’s there. Otherwise, this isn’t going to change.

Want to catch a game? The Islanders schedule with links to buy tickets can be found here.

History lesson

How has this group of Islanders fared in the playoffs after losing Game 1 on the road? We’re glad you asked.

The most recent example came two years ago against the Bruins, when after dropping Game 1, the Isles came back to win Game 2 in overtime at TD Garden with Casey Cizikas scoring the winner.

The Islanders' Casey Cizikas scores a game-winning goal against the Bruins in the 2021 NHL playoffs.
The last time the Islanders lost a road playoffs Game 1, Casey Cizikas rallied them with an overtime winner in Game 2.
Getty Images

Not counting the 2020 bubble, because the home advantage was a tad nullified without a crowd in attendance, the previous time the Islanders dropped a Game 1 on the road was in 2013 against the Penguins. They came back to win Game 2 before losing the series in six.

Reaching outside of this era, the Isles have won Game 2 four straight times when this scenario presented itself, also doing so in 2007 against the Sabres and in 2004 against the Lightning.

Historically, though, they are 9-13 in such Game 2s, with the Canadiens, in particular, having tormented them with four wins in four tries.

Another thing to watch in Game 2

A popular topic in a playoff series against Carolina tends to be Jordan Staal’s third line, especially in Raleigh, where Rod Brind’Amour can use that group as a shutdown line.

But on Monday, the Islanders fared just fine against that group: The top line of Lee, Horvat and Barzal was by far their best-performing forward line of the night and received the lion’s share of minutes against Staal, Jesper Fast and Jordan Martinook.

It was the second line of Nelson, Pierre Engvall and Kyle Palmieri — which mostly went against Stefan Noesen, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Martin Necas — that unduly struggled, with just three shots for and 12 against, per Natural Stat Trick. That is a matchup the Islanders can win — and one they very much need to win.