Mathew Barzal paused before beginning his answer.
He then took a few more seconds to collect his thoughts.
“Tough question,” Barzal responded when asked about the New York Islanders’ offensive struggles. “It’s hard to explain.”
The talented winger attempted another run at it moments later.
“Honestly hard to explain,” he said. “I don’t know. I don’t know… I honestly don’t know.
And not getting very far.
The Islanders were comfortably in a playoff position Dec. 9, tied on points with Metropolitan Division rivals Carolina and Pittsburgh, and one ahead of the New York Rangers.
The wheels have fallen off since, especially over the last three weeks, thanks to a familiar problem for the franchise – putting the puck in the net.
The Islanders were 6-10-4 over their last 20 games heading into Wednesday’s matchup against Ottawa, sitting 27th in scoring over that span. New York is also an appalling 3-for-56 on the power play, with three short-handed goals against.
Things have been even worse over the last 10 contests. New York is 1-6-3 with an average of 1.70 goals per outing, good for 31st in the 32-team NHL.
“Haven’t been able to push through,” said captain Anders Lee. “It comes down to little things.”
The Islanders fired Stanley Cup-winning head coach Barry Trotz in a surprise move last spring after four seasons that included two semifinal appearances and a missed playoffs.
General manager Lou Lamoriello didn’t go far to find a replacement, tabbing long-time Trotz assistant Lane Lambert with unlocking the roster’s offensive potential while maintaining a defensive structure in front of Ilya Sorokin, who sits tied for fourth in the league with a . 922 save percentage.
To this point, it hasn’t worked.
Tied with Brock Nelson for the team lead with 42 points, Barzal has one assist in his last eight games. Anthony Beauvillier has one goal in his last 14. Lee scored twice in Monday’s 5-2 loss to Toronto, but had just one over his previous nine contests. Nelson had a recent run of 14 games without scoring and Jean-Gabriel Pageau hasn’t put a puck over the line in 10 straight.
“We had a good stretch early in the year where we thought we were doing some good things,” Nelson said. “Power play right now, that’s a big, big part of it.”
Despite the negative results, optimism remains in New York’s locker room.
“Our game isn’t as far off as it feels,” Lee said. “We’ve just got to put it all together for 60 minutes.”
Lambert has been encouraged with the response of his players to the adversity.
“Great group of guys,” said the 58-year-old, who pointed to breaking out of the defensive zone efficiently as a key area of concern. “They respond and they care and they want to win. Guiding them in that direction is imperative.”
Lee made it clear that the current struggles are not related to coaching.
“(Lambert’s) kept our systems and kept our energy and our commitment,” he said. “It’s on us, too. We’ve got to be the ones that go out there and figure this out.”
“It’s great just to have him stay positive,” Beauvillier said of the rookie bench boss. “He’s the head of the snake.”
Barzal said Lambert’s energy and emotion were “contagious.”
“I just appreciate his love for the game and how detailed he is, how personable he is,” Barzal said. “Seems to know the right thing to say.
“Got a really good grip on our team and our dressing room.”
But it’s a results-based business with a room that includes the main characters from the Islanders’ semifinal appearances in 2020 and 2021 under Trotz.
“Everybody still has a belief,” Nelson said of an aging roster. “It isn’t that long ago, but at the same time, we realize it hasn’t gone as smoothly or as easily.
“Trying to search for an answer.”
Lambert believes it rests inside the “resilient” Islanders’ four walls.
“Unforgiving league,” he said. “There’s a fine line between winning and losing.
“Stay the course and we’ll turn this thing around.”
The race for the Pacific Division crown could come right down to the wire.
Vegas, Los Angeles, Seattle, Edmonton and Calgary were separated by just six points at the top of the standings heading into Wednesday.
The Golden Knights led with 61 points, but the second-year Kraken were tops based on points percentage (.641).
The Kings occupied the division’s other playoff berth, while the Oilers and Flames held both Western Conference wild-card spots.
BARZAL TALKS BEDARD
The 25-year-old sang the praises of Connor Bedard – expected to go No. 1 at the 2023 NHL draft – long before the North Vancouver, BC, native’s jaw-dropping performance at the recent world junior hockey championship.
Barzal skates with the 17-year-old in the summer and has a keen understanding of a unique skillset that includes incredible instincts and a devastating shot.
But the dominant performance that saw Bedard rewrite Canadian and tournament records at the men’s under-20 event still caught him a little off guard.
“I didn’t maybe expect that many points,” Barzal said after the phenom put up 23 in seven games. “Such a good kid. I want to cheer for him. I want him to be as great as possible.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 25, 2023.
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Joshua Clipperton’s weekly NHL notebook is published every Wednesday.
Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press