ST. LOUIS — The St. Louis Blues take the ice with the New York Islanders on Thursday for the first time since Oct. 14, when the Islanders managed to pull out a 3-2 overtime win.
“The past three games we’ve played them, I think we’ve had the puck a lot,” Blues head coach Craig Berube said. “We did a lot of good things, but we end up losing. Not getting enough goals. Then third period rolled around last game. We shot ourselves in the foot that game. We didn’t play very well in the third period there in the Island.”
That’s the first and only time the two teams have seen each other in the 2019-2020 season.
“They’re a very good defensive team,” said Berube. “Ya know, structured hockey team.”
If this sounds familiar, it’s because the Blues and Islanders both play a similarly structured game. A defensively-minded game with a heavy emphasis on puck control in the offensive zone.
“I think both teams may look in the mirror a little bit,” Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo said. “They both like to play in the offensive zone. Both like to control the pace of the game, and control the puck. It’s gonna be a battle of obviously forechecks, and offensive zone time. Both teams want to play the same way. They’re physical. We’re physical. It’ll be a fun game to play.”
Not only do they play a strong defensively minded game, with a +11 goal differential heading into Thursday’s match up, but they possess top-tier, goal-scoring talent.
Islanders forward Mathew Barzal is one of the more dominant puck possessing forwards in the league, with the ability to take over a game. His 54 points speak to his ability to score goals, as well as play make.
“Barry Trots’ teams, ya know, they play good defense and they’re good structured teams,” Berube said. “They do a good job that way, but they’ve got some really high-end forwards. Barzal’s one of them, who we’ve gotta do a good job against him tonight. He’s a lot like Patrick Kane out there. The ability to carry the puck from his own end through the neutral zone into the offensive zone and make plays. He’s hard to handle. He’s very quick and allusive. So, he’s gonna be one of our targets tonight. We gotta do a good job against him.”
Unlike the Blues, the Islanders didn’t have as much offensive depth this season. Islanders general manager Lou Lamoriello made notable changes before the 2020 Trade Deadline.
“They added Pageau, who’s having a good year,” Berube said. “So, they made their team better.”
Jean-Gabriel Pageau has 25 goals and 41 points this season.
The Islanders are expecting offensive contributions from Pageau and other veteran forwards, while the Blues are counting on their younger talent to step up and catch teams off guard the way that they have.
Blues forward Zach Sanford is coming off of another two-goal game, which helped propel the Blues past the Blackhawks on Tuesday.
That’s already seven more goals than Sanford had in entirety last year.
“I’ve been playing with Perron for a while now, and we switched over to play with Thomas,” Sanford said. “I played with him a little bit before, and I’m pretty comfortable with both of them, and we’re really learning each others’ games. And on the confidence side, I think that’s huge too. I think I got some confidence there, and when you go out with a little more confidence it makes the game a lot easier.”
Perhaps the biggest difference between the two teams outside of stronger depth, is where they both sit in the NHL standings. The Blues sit at first in the western conference with 84 points, while The Islanders sit at fourth place in the metropolitan division with 77 points. They hold the first wild card spot in the East only one point ahead of Columbus, and three ahead of Carolina.
“Playing to be on the top of that division, they played us hard last time, and we’re gonna expect the same thing tonight,” Pietrangelo said.
The Blues allowed five goals on Tuesday against Chicago, after allowing only two goals in the previous four game prior to that. The biggest issue? The penalty kill.
After struggling on the power play at different points during the first half of the season, the Blues managed to turn things around to have one of the current top-five power plays in the NHL.
The penalty kill? Not so much.
“There’s things we can improve on,” Berube said. “We’ve taken the most penalties in the last eight games in the league. Two-minute minors. That’s something we gotta get better at. We can’t be going to the penalty box as much as we are. So it’s things like that.”
Discipline will be key on Thursday facing a feisty New York team.
“There’s bench minors,” Berube said. “There’s slashings, there’s trippings, there’s hookings, there’s holdings. I mean, there’s all kinds.”
The Islanders are coming off a physical loss against the New York Rangers.
“This is a good team,” Pietrangelo said. “We’re gonna get the best from every team here moving forward, because even teams that maybe aren’t in the playoffs, they know who they’re playing against. And we expect a good effort from everybody.”