Horvat stabilizing offense for injury-plagued Islanders
The New York Islanders acquired Bo Horvat at a critical point in their season, and the veteran center has improved the offense and provided a stabilizing presence amid a flood of injuries to key players.
After a rough stretch in which they lost 10 of 11 games (1-7-3), the Islanders fell five points out of a wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference before they won their last two games prior to the extended bye week and All-Star break.
They were in danger of spiraling out of the postseason picture for a second straight year after consecutive appearances in the semifinal round of the NHL playoffs before president and general manager Lou Lamoriello pulled off the trade to get Horvat from the Vancouver Canucks on Jan. 30.
Horvat, who already had matched last season's career high of 31 goals before the trade, has five goals and three assists in 11 games with the Islanders to set a new career high with 62 points.
“He’s strong on the puck, great defensively," Islanders captain Anders Lee said. “He wins faceoffs. And in the offensive zone and up and down the ice, he has a natural instinct to make plays and score goals. That’s why he’s had success in this league for a long time. ... He brings a really calm presence around everybody.”
The Islanders are 6-3-2 since the trade and have moved into the East’s top wild-card spot, trailing the New York Rangers by eight points for third place in the Metropolitan Division. The Rangers have played three fewer games.
Horvat's presence has helped the offense overcome injuries to forwards Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Josh Bailey and — the latest — star center Mathew Barzal, who is sidelined indefinitely.
Horvat began playing on the top line with Barzal and Bailey before Anders Lee replaced Bailey. After Barzal’s injury, Matt Martin was moved up to join Horvat and Lee. Since moving up to join their new teammate, Lee has three goals and three assists in six games and Martin has chipped in with three assists in four games.
“Just trying to get open for everybody out there and try to create space,” Horvat said. “We just got to continue doing those little things.”
After averaging 2.85 goals per game over their first 52 games, the Islanders have increased it to 3.18 per game since his arrival.
The Islanders were languishing last in the NHL on the power play at 15.5% at the All-Star break after going 0 for 25 over the last 10 games before the trade. Since Horvat’s arrival, they have gone 7 for 30, and he has a goal and an assist with the man advantage.
“I think we’re just getting a little more zone time, we’ve been better in the break ins,” defenseman Noah Dobson said. “Once we got in the zone, we’ve had good looks. Just getting in the zone, we’ve done a better job of that and I think we’re attacking a little more and executing our plays.”
In New York’s 4-0 win at Winnipeg on Sunday, Horvat came through on the penalty kill as he scored a short-handed goal — his fourth of the season to tie Chicago’s Sam Lafferty and Vegas’ Reilly Smith for the league lead.
Horvat is second on the team in ice time since the trade — averaging just over 21 minutes per game — trailing defenseman Adam Pelech, and he has won 54.2% of his faceoffs to stabilize a team that has ranked 15th in the league this season.
“Adding Bo was a big addition for us,” said Pageau, who has been the Islanders' leader in faceoffs at 56.5% this season. “He’s not only winning draws on the power play, he’s really good at tipping the puck, getting in the open area and finishing. He’s got a great shot and he’s good at retrieving the puck also. He’s got it all.”
The Islanders have just 19 games remaining — the fewest in the NHL. Pittsburgh, which holds the second wild card, is two points back but has played four fewer games. Buffalo and Detroit are just outside wild-card positions, are three and five points behind New York, respectively, and both have played five fewer games.
“For us, it's just important to worry about ourselves,” Dobson said. “Every single game there’s two points available and we got to try to go get them. Once you’re in this spot, if you keep winning it’s hard for teams to catch you.”