SAN JOSE, Calif. – The Islanders wrapped up a short and fairly successful trip to California on Saturday with a convincing 4-1 victory over the Sharks, following a split of games in Los Angeles and Anaheim earlier this week. They are 8-3-1 in their last 12 games and leapfrogged Pittsburgh in the standings to at least temporarily grab the top wild card spot while remaining three points ahead of the Florida Panthers.
So those are all pretty good things.
What may be the most surprising part of their largely positive results of late, and perhaps even a little concerning, is that they’re doing it without much impact on the record of newcomer and now top-line center Bo Horvat . Saturday marked the 11th time in the last 12 games that Horvat has not scored a goal, and in the last eight games he has only one point, an assist. He has nine points (5 goals, 4 assists) in a total of 19 games since being traded from Vancouver.
“I think I’m still trying to find my game a little bit,” Horvat said Friday after an offseason practice in San Jose. “There are still things I need to clean up and work on. I would be more concerned about not getting my opportunities. I still have my chances, they just aren’t going my way right now. At the same time we win hockey games. I’m trying to do things that aren’t on the scoreboard (like) winning faceoffs and playing the 200-foot game.”
Coach Lane Lambert offered a broad overview of what he’s seen from Horvat of late.
“Obviously he’s not scoring at the moment, but he’s had a lot of chances,” Lambert said. “With the minutes he’s logged, I think he’s done a great job of coming in and kind of taking us to a new level.”
Some of the underlying numbers support the argument made by both Horvat and Lambert that the center probably should have been rewarded more than he has been over the past few weeks.
In 12 games since Mathew Barzal’s injury in Boston on Feb. 18, Horvat has had 35 shots on goal, leading the team in that span. According to Natural Stat Trick, he had a 4.01 expected goal in all situations in his previous 11 games before Saturday, clearly more than just the two he conceded. (He had a goal and an assist in the Islanders’ win at Pittsburgh on Feb. 20, their first game since Barzal was injured.)
Horvat had arguably his most impressive offensive game since Barzal’s injury on Saturday. He finished with a team-best five shots on goal, including a handful of excellent scoring chances. One of them came midway through regulation, with the Islanders leading 3-1, when Horvat took the ball from Simon Holmstrom and sent a dangerous shot from the circle that was stopped by goalkeeper Kaapo Kahkonen.
Upon returning to the bench, he slammed the door shut, perhaps showing a bit of frustration. That prompted a quick pat on the back from captain and teammate Anders Lee.
“We talked,” Lee said. “It’s one of those stretches where we like the way we’re playing, it just doesn’t work out. … I think we make a difference every night. It just might not (show up) in the record right now.”
The futility of the Islanders’ power play also affected Horvat’s performance. Their 10.7 success rate in that 11-game stretch after Barzal’s injury and before Saturday was the worst mark in the league. On Saturday, they managed a power-play goal by second-unit quarterback Ryan Pulock.
It’s safe to say Barzal’s sudden departure threw a bit of a curveball for Horvat, who seemed to have instant chemistry with the talented playmaker. Horvat posted a three-goal streak in his second, third and fourth games with the Islanders, along with Barzal.
“Definitely, I think, when you start feeling that with guys and you start getting chemistry and all of a sudden he gets hurt like that, it kind of throws a wrench in things,” said Horvat, who credited other teammates. for “pulling his weight and stepping up in big ways, whether it’s scoring goals or killing penalties.”
we like to see it. pic.twitter.com/lFmbzWzWG1
— New York Islanders (@NYIslanders) March 19, 2023
Horvat has found a way to contribute in other ways, though, as Lambert has said several times in recent days.
Looking back at that 11-game stretch from Feb. 20 to Thursday night’s 6-3 win in Anaheim, Horvat’s ridiculous 64.7 buzzer-beating percentage was the best mark in the league. Furthermore, his ice time increased to 21:36 per game, second on the team behind defenseman Adam Pelech. He’s also proven to be a valuable penalty killer — in 17:44 of short-handed ice time over the last 12 games, Horvat hasn’t been there for any opposing power play goals.
“It’s easy for him. He’s a smart player,” said Jean-Gabriel Pageau, a skilled penalty killer in his own right. “We all know how good he is with the puck, but without the puck he’s a very smart player. I think he (just had to) get to know the system and then fit into his game. He is strong in the faceoffs, dedicated to blocking shots and playing in the lane. He’s been amazing since he came in.”
To the Islanders’ credit, other players in particular have made plenty of tackles in the last two wins. The second line of Brock Nelson, Kyle Palmieri and Pierre Engvall combined for eight points in the win over the Ducks, with Palmieri scoring another Saturday at 2:18 of the second period for what turned out to be the game-winner. That came after Pageau came up short in the first period to tie the game after Kevin Labanc gave the Sharks an early lead.
It’s also the time of year when no one is going to focus too much on individual stats, especially on a team that needs points in the standings by any means necessary to get them.
“It’s one of those stretches where we like the way we’re playing, it’s just not going our way,” Lee said. “But we didn’t need them tonight. So let’s keep doing what we’re doing and they’re going to start falling.”
And, if the Islanders manage to make the playoffs, there’s reason to believe Horvat will revive. In his only playoff appearance in seven years, he scored 10 goals in just 17 games in the 2020 bubble for Vancouver, helping them to the second round where they fell in seven tough games to Vegas.
“I love the playoffs. I think that’s when I play my best hockey – Horvat said. “I think it brings out the best in me and (it would be) nice to get back there.”
Meanwhile, he is still confident that he will have more of an impact in attack during the final stretch.
“It’s just a matter of time before it comes in. Like I said, I’d be worried if I didn’t get the chances, but eventually I think they’ll start coming in again.”
(Photo of Islanders center Bo Horvat (14) reaching for the puck against the Sharks: Stan Szeto / USA Today)