Stories by Joe PantornoAdam Pelech: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
The good news keeps coming for the New York Islanders.
One of their most valuable defensemen in Adam Pelech, who went down with an Achilles injury in January, will be available to return as soon as team facilities are able to open, Islanders’ general manager Lou Lamoriello said on Wednesday afternoon.
“Adam is allowed to participate… as if the injury never took place,” Lamoriello said. “There’s no question his value to this team.”
“We will have every player available to us,” he added, which means the likes of Casey Cizikas, Cal Clutterbuck, and Johnny Boychuk will be at full strength come July.
The 25-year-old Pelech was continuing his development as a legitimate top-pairing stay-at-home defenseman in the 38 games before his injury, posting nine points, a plus-4 rating, and a defensive points share of 2.2.
After what was described as a “freak” injury during warmups shortly after New Year’s Day, the Islanders’ defense — which was the NHL’s best last season — took a nosedive.
In the games Pelech played in, the Islanders conceded an average of 2.63 goals per game. In the 30 games without him, before play was suspended on March 12, that number shot up to 3.1.
While it might not seem like an enormous difference, it’s dramatic for an Islanders team that is one of the worst goal-scoring units in the NHL — and it showed in the standings.
The Islanders went 25-10-3 with Pelech in the lineup and were one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. After his loss, they went 10-13-7 to drop to seventh in the conference based on points percentage.
It earned them a play-in matchup with the No. 10 Florida Panthers in the best-of-five series to move on to the more traditional Eastern Conference quarterfinals — a format that was confirmed by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman on Tuesday.
“In my opinion and league have done a tremendous job in coming up with the best possible scenario they could to satisfy all the individual situation of each team barring none,” Lamoriello said. “I’m totally supportive of what the results were and just excited that we have a template to get back.”
Lamoriello was also able to confirm that construction on the Islanders’ new arena at Belmont Park resumed on Wednesday morning, exactly two months after on-site work was stopped due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
It is still on schedule for its October 2021 opening, too.
“We were ahead of schedule when this all took place,” Lamoriello said. “And I don’t believe there will be any hiccups.”
The Rangers couldn’t have asked for a better playoff opponent as a No. 11 seed.
That sentence would not have made any sense five months ago.
On Tuesday afternoon, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman confirmed that the NHL would jump right into a 24-team postseason sometime in July.
With 12 playoff teams per conference, the Rangers just squeak in as an 11 seed where they will face the No. 6 Carolina Hurricanes in a best-of-five play-in round to determine who moves on to the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
Based on the 2019-20 regular season, which ended on March 12 due to the coronavirus pandemic, it’s as good a draw as any for the Rangers.
They swept the Hurricanes in four games this season, outscoring them 17-9.
Like he did against most of the NHL, Artemi Panarin thrived against Carolina, posting three goals and six assists (nine points) in those four games while Mika Zibanejad added four goals and three assists (seven points).
It will be those two who will be tasked in getting the Rangers’ offense back up to speed, which will be no easy task after what will be an unexpected four-month hiatus.
But the biggest question that will be on head coach David Quinn’s mind when he begins ramping up for that best-of-five series is which goalie he’ll start.
Rookie netminder Igor Shesterkin was a stalwart in the crease when he made his jump to the NHL in January.
He went 10-2-0 in 12 starts with a sterling .932 save percentage and 2.52 goals-against average. That included a win over the Hurricanes on Feb. 21 when he stopped 27 of 29 shots in a 5-2 win.
Normally, those numbers would make him the clear-cut choice to start things off for the Rangers in the postseason. After all, it’s usually the team with the hot goalie that goes the farthest.
However, the aging Henrik Lundqvist, who has taken a backseat in Quinn’s three-goalie tandem that includes Shesterkin and Alexandar Georgiev, has been almost unbeatable against the Hurricanes over his Hall-of-Fame career.
In 46 games, he’s 33-12-1 with a .934 save percentage and 2.00 goals-against average.
Despite a career-worst season in 2019-20, he was still money against Carolina, going 3-0-0 with a .947 save percentage and 2.33 goals-against average.
Add in his lengthy postseason resume with 128 appearances and 61 wins and Quinn’s decision on who starts between the pipes is going to be a difficult one.