CHICAGO — The Islanders have been carried by their stars all year, so maybe it is not all that surprising that as their top players have slowed down, so too has the team.
A 4-2 loss in Winnipeg — the Islanders’ fifth defeat in sixth games — put their own top-heaviness on display by comparison.
Aside from Kyle Connor’s late empty-net goal, the Jets did not win this game because of their usual scorers.
They did so with goals from Gabe Vilardi, Neal Pionk and Mason Appleton — Vilardi being the only one of those three to have double-digit goals this season.
Third-line center Dominic Toninato compiled a series of five-on-five scoring chances.
All 18 skaters were pulling on the rope.
The Islanders, by contrast, have had just two forward lines score more than five times this season at five-on-five, per Natural Stat Trick.
Those would be their usual top two lines: Anders Lee, Bo Horvat and Mat Barzal; and Pierre Engvall, Brock Nelson and Kyle Palmieri.
With Casey Cizikas and now Engvall out, forcing Barzal off Horvat’s wing and back to center, the Islanders have been unable to deploy those combinations as often as they would like.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Barzal has now gone three straight games without a point for the first time all season.
Nelson hasn’t scored in four games. Horvat has done so just once in six games.
Further hurting the situation is that Adam Pelech has looked far from 100 percent in his return from injury, committing an uncharacteristic turnover around the net leading to Appleton’s goal Tuesday night.
If Barzal, Horvat, Nelson and Pelech — four former and current All-Stars — are all struggling at once, the Islanders are not going to win many games. Simple as that.
At least for Barzal and Horvat, that may come down to finding ways to get them on the ice together as much as possible.
It’s understandable that coach Lane Lambert has put Barzal back at center in the wake of Cizikas’ injury — Barzal is, after all, a career-long center, and that helps the Islanders avoid playing someone out of position or being forced into a call-up.
But the early returns have not been good, with Barzal putting in three of his most anonymous performances of the year.
Barzal and Horvat have held each other up all season.
With the two of them on the ice, the Islanders have outscored opposition 30-19 at five-on-five with 54.19 percent of the expected goals, per Natural Stat Trick.
Without Horvat beside him, Barzal’s plus/minus is negative-4, and his expected goals rate is 34.93 percent at five-on-five.
Without Barzal next to him, Horvat is plus-1 and his expected goals rate is 40.89 percent at five-on-five.
With Engvall hurt, the Isles added Cizikas to injured reserve on Wednesday, clearing a roster spot to call up center Kyle MacLean.
If MacLean is in Friday’s lineup, it will enable Barzal and Horvat to reunite. That is one problem solved.
Of course, that would still leave Nelson without Engvall, whose ability to transition the puck has been key for the second line even as Engvall’s own scoring numbers have been lacking.
The Islanders have tried Hudson Fasching in Engvall’s usual spot on the second line twice over the past few weeks. It hasn’t gotten results.
Julien Gauthier or Simon Holmstrom would be logical options to try next.
As for Pelech, there is not much the Islanders can do aside from hope he regains comfort and finds his old form as he plays more games.
Coming back from injuries is rarely straightforward, and that will continue to be at the front of mind when the other players on the shelf rejoin the fold.
There are no perfect solutions here. So goes the season.