Barry Trotz’s simmering concern over Oliver Wahlstrom’s play came to a boil on Thursday when he scratched the young forward for the Islanders’ 6-3 loss to the Penguins, replacing him with Kieffer Bellows.
The move likely would have been made when the Islanders hosted the Penguins on Tuesday, but Bellows was ill that day, so Oliver Wahlstrom played briefly before getting benched after 8:27 of play.
Trotz said after the morning skate at PPG Paints Arena that he had watched film with Wahlstrom to go over things. Then he struck a supportive tone with reporters, citing the lengthy schedule for a 21-year-old who played nine regular-season games two seasons ago, 44 last season and 66 so far in 2021-22.
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“A lot of times, it’s nothing physical,” the coach said. “It’s just a little bit of mental fatigue. Sometimes when you’re mentally a little bit tired, you’re not as sharp and you’re reacting just a little bit slower.
“Sometimes when you get into the long grind, you get pulled out of the lineup and hopefully you reset and you get just a little mental break and you’re sharp again.”
Oliver Wahlstrom watched his teammates play poorly in the first period and fall behind 2-0 on goals by
Kris Letang and Teddy Blueger, the latter coming on a breakaway after Blueger left the penalty box.
Trotz said his team played “soft” early on.
The Islanders (34-30-9) were better in the second period and got within one goal when Mathew Barzal fed Zach Parise for an easy score. But Ross Johnston’s turnover led to a 2-on-1 for Pittsburgh. Sidney Crosby set up Jake Guentzel, who made it 3-1 at 12:10.
Crosby scored at 10:44 of the third to make it 4-1. Then there were four goals scored in a frantic final 2:37.
Goals by Anders Lee and Zdeno Chara each was followed by an empty-netter for the Penguins (43-22-11), who clinched their 16th consecutive playoff berth.
The Islanders will be eliminated with any combination of three points lost by them or gained by the Capitals.
For Chara, the goal with 1:08 remaining and the Islanders down by three was meaningless to the outcome but meaningful for him. It was his first goal since Feb. 1 of last year, when he was with the Capitals, and his first as an Islander since Jan. 12, 2001.
“It’s always nice to score a goal in the National Hockey League,” said Chara, who is 45 and has 207 career goals.
Trotz said that after a slow start, he thought Bellows played well and “with a little bit of an edge. He got some chances. He had some detail, made some plays.”
Many Islanders fans have been clamoring for more Oliver Wahlstrom since last season. But Trotz has been cautious in how and when he deploys him, citing growing pains.
Oliver Wahlstrom has 13 goals and 11 assists this season, with only three goals and one assist since March 1.
“He’s an instinctual player, and you’ve got to use your instincts,” Trotz said. “He’s got good hands. He’s a big body. He traditionally can score pretty good. But he’s trying to distribute rather than be that shooter. He’s trying to do stuff that is really not his strength.
“So it’s just trying to get that balance where when you have the puck, use your strengths. When you don’t have the puck, you have to rely on a little bit of your detail and your systematic play, because that’s really your security blanket as a player.
“If you just try to make up stuff on the go, especially without the puck, and guess, in this league you just get torn apart a little bit and it always ends up in the back of your net.”
The Islanders need the skill set — and youth — Wahlstrom can provide. Trotz just wants him to go about his business correctly.
“I think he’s going to be fine,” Trotz said. “But for some of the young guys, it becomes a long season. He’s not physically tired. He might just be a little bit mentally tired.”