We all know the value of depth in the playoffs. In high-stakes matchups, stars receive the bulk of the attention and it’s thus up to the supporting cast to help shoulder some of the load. Their ability to chip in is never more vital than in the postseason.
So far this spring, Jean-Gabriel Pageau is pushing the limits of merely “chipping in.”
While he’s theoretically the New York Islanders’ third-line center, the versatile pivot can play up and down the lineup and in all situations. He’s clever offensively, stingy defensively and relentless in his puck pursuit. Most importantly, he’s established himself as a big-game performer. The 28-year-old is currently tied for the team lead in points with Anthony Beauvillier (11 in 11 games), but he’s a +7 to Beauvillier’s -2 rating despite heavy defensive usage (34.6 OZS%).
Simply put, the undersized (5’10”, 180 lbs) forward has delivered enormous contributions—and they’ve only continued to grow in the second round.
After Boston’s Perfection Line enjoyed a torrid start to the series against the Identity Line (Casey Cizikas, Cal Clutterbuck, Matt Martin), Barry Trotz handed the assignment to Pageau. That’s when the tide began to turn. With the benefit of home ice advantage in Games 3 and 4, Trotz was able to deploy Pageau primarily vs. Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak, and he was rewarded with a defensive clinic:
Pageau also managed the puck intelligently and put his teammates in advantageous spots. Watch how his hockey sense allows him to drift between staying on top of the puck and extending the attack:
From the opening whistle, he quietly dominated Game 4. It was fitting, then, that he also sealed the outcome with an unwavering drive that Boston couldn’t match:
Game 5 was a different beast, though. Without the luxury of last change, Trotz saw Bergeron, Marchand and Pastrnak run wild. That frenetic tone galvanized Boston’s roster to the point where the Isles were hanging on for dear life in just the first period.
It was only a matter of time before Semyon Varlamov gave way between the pipes:
In the face of the Bruins’ ferocious push, New York’s forwards were coughing pucks up left and right and then floundering in coverage. They displayed little urgency to keep a lid on Boston’s surging offense. Mathew Barzal and Jordan Eberle have long struggled to reconcile a defensive conscience with their scoring instincts. Josh Bailey looked lifeless. Cizikas’ woes were precisely why Trotz changed the matchup in the first place.
Brock Nelson was particularly awful on Monday night:
Trotz had to improvise before this swing game slipped beyond reach. Naturally, he looked to Pageau, bumping his Swiss Army knife up alongside Bailey and Beauvillier and slotting Nelson between responsible veterans Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac. This configuration spread the defensive acumen around to at least somewhat offset Boston’s last change.
Moreover, it cast Pageau in a new role. Instead of striving to control the contest, he now had to deliver crushing blows in a wild back-and-forth affair.
Slowly but surely, this decision began to pay off.
Though largely recognized as a defense-first forward, Pageau is equal parts crafty and gutsy on the offensive end. He has a knack for finding seams in scoring areas and competes with the best of them in front of the net. In Game 5, he channeled his inner playmaker and took a page out of the Bruins’ playbook by opting for direct, cutthroat setups in the middle of the ice. Bailey’s 3-2 goal opened the floodgates just long enough to produce a cushion Boston couldn’t overcome:
Monday night’s contest was the furthest thing from a vintage Trotz performance, but Pageau managed to stand out defensively too. He bailed his teammates out of trouble, he out-competed Boston in the corners and he refused to cede an inch when the rest of the team appeared willing to give up a mile:
While the Identity Line may represent the team’s hard-nosed character, Pageau is the individual who best embodies the Islanders’ underdog DNA: Protect the house. Frustrate your opponents. Drag them out to deep waters. Make their lives miserable.
Boston’s brightest stars are becoming Pageau’s latest victims. At 5-on-5, they’ve found the back of the net once against Pageau in 28:37 of ice time. Against everyone else, they’ve generated five goals in 63:52. The puck doesn’t lie either. During his shifts, Bergeron, Marchand and Pastrnak own 25.0% of the high-danger chances and 45.9% of the expected goals. The rest of the time, they’ve posted a staggering 72.7 HDCF% and 67.7 xGF%.
Regardless of the line combinations, Pageau is positively tormenting the Perfection Line. Boston did everything it could to minimize his impact in Game 5, and he still tilted the balance in New York’s favor.
When wins and losses are decided by razor-thin margins, you need leaders who will play the right way. That’s Pageau. He’s the definition of a gamer through and through—not just because he embraces the big stage but because he’s a chameleon who provides whatever you need to win on any given night. Superb defense? A burst of offense? A key faceoff (54.6%)? Net-front presence on the power play? A big penalty kill? He’s game.
Come playoff time, Pageau may well be the team’s single most important player. Full stop.