The New York Islanders started off 2021 the way they ended 2020, playing a viciously methodical game that would seem to indicate the bubble run to the conference final was no fluke.
It’s just one game, of course, and their crosstown rivals look severely unprepared, but the 4-0 thumping was also the Isles’ first season-opening shutout since 1976.
Technically it was a home game for the Rangers, but the pandemic-fueled empty seats meant we were deprived of that delicious hush — interrupted by LGI chants — that befalls Madison Square Garden when the Rangers lay an egg.
Barzal says he couldn't imagine how crazy it would've been at MSG tonight if there were fans there. #isles— jamie stuart (@N12jamiestuart) January 15, 2021
Semyon Varlamov stopped 24 shots for the low-stress shutout, Brock Nelson Mathew Barzal scored their firsts of the season, and Anders Lee scored twice (they later changed his second goal to Jordan Eberle, but that seems destined to be reversed).
The Islanders benefited from an absurd eight power plays, though the game was out of hand before they’d even enjoyed their third, 14 minutes into the first period.
Changing of the Guard
It was odd to see a big opener without Henrik Lundqvist in the net for the Smurfs. His heir Igor Shesterkin did not have a strong game, though as that story often goes, the team in front of him didn’t help much.
First Period: I could get used to this
For the first time in my recent memory, the Islanders started the season with a power play that looked in prime form. They cashed in on their first opportunity, after Jack Johnson — he lives! — took a holding the stick penalty. The Islanders moved the puck around smoothly, quickly, holding possession and using their bodies to keep the puck away.
The conversion came off a fortuitous bounce, when Anthony Beauvillier’s shot was blocked but bounced right to Brock Nelson, who reacted quickly to slide it under Shesterkin.
Lee’s first goal came 90 seconds later and put the Isles up 2-0 just four minutes into the game. It came after an overlooked high stick that bloodied Lee’s lip: he was late coming toward the bench from the Rangers’ offensive zone, when play came back to him, and he sniped on a 2-on-1.
Anders Lee on his first goal: "I was a little upset. I took one to the teeth and was making my way back... lucked out a little bit there." #isles— Joe Pantorno (@JoePantorno) January 15, 2021
Barzal made it 3-0 10 minutes later, counterattacking after a Rangers transition was interrupted by a bounce off the linesman. Barzal took the play one-on-one and sniped from the high slot over Shesterkin’s shoulder.
Second and Third Periods: Finish them
There wasn’t a lot to say about the rest of the game. Give the Islanders an early 3-0 lead and they will choke you out playing mostly mistake-free hockey. It wasn’t a shell, but it protected the lead like one.
If there was any hope of a Rangers response, it died with a power play goal 15 minutes into the second. That was the goal where Lee clearly redirected Jordan Eberle’s pass while winning a battle in front of the net. It was another well-managed power play, their fifth of the game.
At the end of that period, Brendan Lemieux — a tool who falls not far from the tool tree — received an embellishment penalty to offset the roughing given to J-G Pageau. There were other mild flare-ups over the rest of the game, but nothing much and without fans to impress.
The third period was merely about dotting the I’s, crossing the T’s, and signing the official scoresheet. Not a bad start at all.
Nick Leddy is all business: "We want to set the bar high for ourselves especially after this past year, we know we can compete at a high level every night. That should be our mindset every game." #Isles— Joe Pantorno (@JoePantorno) January 15, 2021
pretty dominant effort from the isles tonight. cohesive structure with skill sprinkled in continues to be their formula...— Carey Haber (@habermetrics) January 15, 2021
final #isles 5v5 score adjusted metrics via nst
73.83% high danger
70.73% expected goals
big, big blob in front of shesterkin pic.twitter.com/nlLnwW7pSx
Trotz: “There’s another level in our game yet.” #Isles— Brian Compton (@BComptonNHL) January 15, 2021
These teams have their first rematch Saturday night, same place, same time.